Arizona is a step closer to becoming the 48th state to ban texting while driving.
But some lawmakers aren’t convinced that alone will save lives and voted to take the fight against distracted driving a step further.
The House passed Rep. Noel Campbell’s HB2318, which bans texting while driving but also effectively outlaws handheld cell phone use while driving.
The House additionally passed Sen. J.D. Mesnard’s SB1141 along party lines, empowering officers to not only pull over drivers for using their phones while driving but also for other activities that distract them from driving safely.
Both proposals now go to the governor’s desk.
Today’s votes occurred with family members of those killed by texting motorists watching in the gallery.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, specifically addressed the survivors of Clayton Townsend, an officer with the Salt River Police Department who was killed when he was struck by a texting motorists while conducting a traffic stop.
“We’re going to get it done today,” she told them.
The House’s 44-16 vote on HB2318 came after lawmakers defeated a version with many of the same restrictions but a crucial difference: It would have been a secondary offense, allowing police to cite offenders only if they were pulled over for some other reason.
“We are only one of three states in the entire nation that does not ban text messaging and driving even though we know the frightening statistics,” said Campbell, who has championed making texting while driving and the use of hand-held cell phone a primary offense, allowing police to stop motorists solely because they are breaking this new law.
Campbell noted that Arizona cities and counties already have their own versions.
Under the new state law, which takes effect in 2021, a first-time offense would result in a fine of between $75 and $149. Subsequent violations could mean fines of up to $250.
Campbell’s bill divided House Republicans – 16 voted against it – but won support from every Democrat, taking the legislation across the finish line.
Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, warned that the legislation would make anything from talking on the phone while driving to simply having it in your pocket a violation of the law.
He said there’s nothing inherently dangerous with talking on a cell phone, even without a hands-free device.
“There have been people who have driven their whole lives holding their phone up, talking on their phone, that have not had an accident, myself included,” he said. “We are going to make a lot of people lawbreakers with this bill.”
But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that simply isn’t correct.
He pointed to a provision of the bill that would allow drivers to touch their phones to activate hands-free features without breaking the law.
The protests against the bill ultimately came down to concerns that it is not written well enough and that it opens drivers up to being pulled over on the mere pretense that they had touched their phones.
Such concerns did not extend to Mesnard’s distracted driving bill, at least not for Republican members.
That bill passed without bipartisan support after Democrats argued that it would expand law enforcement’s ability to racially profile in communities of color.
“This will be a tool to stop anyone in those communities,” Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, said.
She supported HB2318 because it focused on driving while using a cell phone, but like her Democratic colleagues, she argued SB1141 is “too incredibly broad.”
Beyond that, Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese, D-Tucson said, the bill is too subjective and too vague, potentially rendering it unenforceable.
“Device in hand equals violation – it needs to be that simple,” he said.
But Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, rejected arguments that the bill would empower law enforcement officers to unfairly apply the law.
He said he’s never been pulled over for driving while black but for legitimate reasons. And if passing SB1141 puts lives that could be saved above individual liberties, he would opt to save lives.
“Liberties can be restored. Lives cannot,” he said.
Capitol Media Services’ Howard Fischer contributed to this report.