What to know about Arizona’s new texting-and-driving ban

A new law bans the use of cell phones and other hand-held devices while driving in Arizona, a move that state legislators have been considering for years.

“I am a true believer, and I know this will make a difference,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (LD-28), who sponsored Senate Bill 1165, signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on April 22. “I know we pass a lot of laws to fix things; I think this will really help.”

The new law bans any kind of hand-held cell phone use while driving — talking, texting, typing or any kind of browsing — unless the device is in hands-free mode. Bluetooth headphones or other hands-free devices are okay. A more detailed list of what is and is not allowed can be found at the bottom of this article.

“This is an approach that other states and even local municipalities here in Arizona have used, and it is successful for two reasons,” Brophy McGee said. “The first is it simply bans the hand-held device; you can’t have it in your hands. The police officer doesn’t have to see if you were texting or messaging or talking or whatever — you just can’t have it in your hands.”

The second reason this type of law has been successful is that it is a primary offense, meaning drivers can be stopped for using their phone while driving regardless of whether they have violated any other traffic laws, Brophy McGee said.

Two counties and 27 cities in Arizona already have texting-and-driving laws on the books, she said. These laws will stay in effect until the statewide ban takes full effect in January 2021, when law enforcement officers can begin issuing monetary fines. Municipalities wishing to issue fines sooner can enact the statewide ban anytime before then.

Effective immediately, law enforcement officers can issue warnings to drivers who are using their cell phones while driving.

This most recent push for a texting-and-driving ban came in the wake of the death of Salt River Police officer Clayton Townsend, who was struck and killed by a driver who was allegedly texting and driving on the Loop 101 freeway in Scottsdale in January.

Townsend’s family, as well as other victims — including Brendan Lyons, a former Tucson firefighter who was hit and seriously injured on more than one occasion by distracted motorists while cycling — have been outspoken against texting and driving, calling for the statewide ban.

“I was sitting with the families — the Townsend family and others — in the gallery when the House passed it, and the palpable sense of relief… for the families and the victims… you could just feel it; you could touch it,” Brophy McGee said. “There’s some closure there for them in terms of what happened to their loved ones, that we finally got it done, and I just can’t begin to tell you how much working with these families has touched my heart.”

The law is not meant to punish drivers but to educate them about safe and unsafe driving practices and encourage better behaviors, she said.

Brophy McGee spent two years on the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee prior to the current legislative session, where she said the Senate saw a number of texting-and-driving bills.

“We heard from many of the families of the victims, and every story was tragic and awful — and preventable,” she said. “Every year, those families would come down and say, ‘This has got to end. This has got to end. What are you guys going to do about it?’”

Brophy McGee said she hopes the law will have an immediate impact, especially considering police officers can already stop and warn drivers.

“I am expecting — and I’ve already started seeing television commercials — a huge public awareness campaign from the insurance companies, from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, law enforcement; they’re all behind this bill,” she said.

This law is the first step in creating good driving habits and changing bad habits because it will create better understanding of the safety risks involved with distracted driving, she said.

“I think what was happening before was that people were seeing other people do it and doing it themselves,” Brophy McGee said. “It was like it was spreading; the behavior was growing.”

The concept is simple, she said. “Put the phone down.” If a driver is expecting an important call, they simply have to pull off the road and they can give the call their full attention, she said.

Brophy McGee recalled a recent interaction with Sen. Tyler Pace (LD-25) in which he walked up to her on the floor of the Senate and said, “I know you texted me, but I was driving. I couldn’t pick up.” It can be done, Brophy McGee said.

She said parents, including mothers and fathers of teens who will soon be behind the wheel, have reached out to her to thank her for passing the new law.

“It gives them a tool for enforcement, and I think our young people are easier, in a sense, to train than us,” Brophy McGee said. “And they will grow up in a culture where it’s just not acceptable to do that, just like it’s not acceptable to drive intoxicated, and it’s not acceptable to not wear your seatbelt.”

The state of Georgia, where distracted driving is often at a nationwide high, enacted a similar law a couple of years ago and saw a 16 percent decrease in traffic fatalities along with a two percent reduction in car insurance rates, Brophy McGee said.

“I’m super proud of this bill and beyond honored,” she said. Rep. Noel Campbell and Sen. David Livingston, transportation chairs for the Arizona House and Senate, respectively, also deserve compliments, she said.

“They worked very hard on this behind the scenes, and this couldn’t have happened without them and a whole bunch of other people,” Brophy McGee said.

What is prohibited:

  • Physically holding a hand-held cell phone or other electronic device while driving
  • Writing, sending or reading text-based communication – including text messages, instant messages, emails or websites — while driving
  • Using a hand-held device to watch, record or broadcast any kind of video content while driving

***These rules do not apply to law enforcement officers or emergency responders working in an official capacity.***

What is allowed:

  • Using a cell phone to type, read or send text-based communication while parked or stopped at a red light or railroad crossing
  • Using a cell phone while driving to: report illegal activity, call emergency services or relay information related to occupational duties (when the device is affixed to the vehicle, e.g. a police officer’s onboard computer)
  • Making a phone call using an earpiece, headphones, smartwatch or other hands-free device (such as in-car Bluetooth) while driving
  • Using a cell phone or other device in hands-free mode for GPS navigation while driving

When citations go into effect on January 1, 2021, law enforcement officers will be able to issue the following fines: between $75 and $149 for a first violation and between $150 and $250 for a second or subsequent violation. Offenders can also be temporarily disqualified from obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Graham Bosch

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