PHOENIX — A 2019 state law about driving while texting becomes real in a few days.
It technically has been illegal since April 2019 for drivers in Arizona to use a hand-held cell phone.
But until now, the law allowed police to issue only a warning, though some communities, including Tucson, have had their own bans. All that changes Friday when the state law gets real teeth.
A first-time offense would result in a fine of up to $149, though it could be no less than $75. Subsequent violations could lead to fines up to $250.
Local laws will be repealed when the state law takes effect.
The statewide ban almost did not happen.
Many Republicans favored a different measure that was aimed at distracted driving.
Proponents of that version argued that the problem with simply focusing on texting and cell phone use is that it fails to address other things that people do.
“I’ve seen people going down the road brushing their teeth, which I don’t really understand,” Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, argued during the 2019 debate.
“There’s people eating burritos who are swerving because they’re trying to put sauce on their food,” Grantham said. “Anything can cause a distraction.”
But that version contained what some advocates of a hard ban on texting while driving considered a poison pill: Police could stop and cite a motorist only if the vehicle was being driven “in a manner that is an immediate hazard to person or property” or the driver does not “exercise reasonable control” to avoid hitting someone or something.
This law, however, says an officer is free to stop someone who is seen operating a vehicle while holding an electronic device, regardless of how well — or poorly — that person is driving.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, one of the champions of that version, told colleagues the strict enforcement is appropriate — and long overdue.
“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,” he said.
Grantham, however, argued the language is overly broad. He pointed out that, as approved, it does more than make it illegal for a motorist to have a cell phone in hand. It would also be a violation if someone “supports (a cell phone) with any part of the person’s body” unless the motorist is also using a hands-free device.
“That could be sitting in your lap,” he said. “That’s way too restrictive.”
House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said it would be one thing if the legislation was limited to things like texting or checking social media. But 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’re going to make an awful lot of people lawbreakers with this bill.”
That argument that some people can talk and drive did not impress Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson.
“That doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said.
But Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said HB 2318 actually can lead to less safety.
He pointed out that people get Amber alerts about missing children, and silver alerts on missing seniors, on their cell phones, information that includes a description of the vehicle being sought.
“That life is just as important,” Cook said, with this law barring people from checking out these messages while driving.
The final House vote on the matter 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 in January 2019 when he was struck by a texting motorist while conducting a traffic stop.
“We’re going to get it done today,” she told them.
“I understand the pain of what happened, of losing these officers,” said Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale. But he voted against the measure, saying “it goes a little bit too far.”
Gov. Doug Ducey, in signing the legislation, gave credit to Toni Townsend, Clayton’s mother.
“I think everyone just saw this as such an avoidable death,” the governor said. “And when somebody comes down (to the Legislature) and speaks with the power and passion of a mom on behalf of her fallen son, how could they not deliver this to the governor’s desk?”
Toni Townsend said she and the family actually celebrated approval of the bill the day before Ducey’s signing ceremony, on Easter Sunday, with the family going to the cemetery and sharing pictures.
“So it’s been a joyous couple of days,” she said, even if it came “out of some horrible tragedy.”
“No good can ever come from that,” Townsend said. “But we can have a positive, and we can at least have a legacy for Clayton.”
Among those who were unaware of — or ignored — the hazards was the governor himself.
Ducey, who is now driven almost all the time by his security detail, confessed to his own practices before he took office in 2015.
“I’m sorry to say that I did,” he said, though it never resulted in an accident. Still, the governor said, that’s not the point.
“Now I know it’s not about being good about working your phone and driving, it’s that you shouldn’t be on your phone while driving,” Ducey said. “So my behavior will change as well.”