Texting-while-driving ban

This 2014 motorist in downtown Tucson would have received a $50 fine today for using his phone while driving.

It wasn’t necessarily crystal clear when the Tucson City Council gave its texting-while-driving ban some teeth in January whether it would make a serious impact on the safety of Tucson streets and whether local drivers would get the message about sending messages while driving.

We now have at least some answers.

The Tucson Police Department cited 1,091 drivers for using their cellphones to text, tweet and yes, make phone calls while driving since March. The new city law went into effect Feb. 1, but officers only warned drivers caught red-handed during the first month. The citations began flowing in March.

A number of council members gave full-throated speeches earlier this year explaining why they needed to change the existing law, which allowed an officer to cite someone for using their cellphones while driving only if they witnessed them break another traffic law, what’s called a secondary offense.

Under the new law, using an electronic device without a hands-free system while driving in Tucson is enough for an officer to pull you over — it’s now what’s called a primary offense. Pima County and Oro Valley also have similar laws, and the state of Arizona now has a similar electronics ban on young drivers.

It was, at the time, a question of resources for the City Council when it changed the law.

The change in the law was made at a time when the police department was known to be in the midst of a staffing crisis. Staffing is still an issue, although the council has backed an ambitious multiyear plan to increase staffing.

Also, police officers said that texting while driving laws are notoriously difficult to enforce. It relies on catching a driver in the act.

Who would not know the new rules after a sea of news stories and public campaigns about the change. People were told that driving around with a phone to your ear or simply in your hand would be an costly mistake — a civil traffic infraction with a $50 fine (not including significant surcharges that are tacked on) for the first offense.

Well, 1,091 drivers didn’t get the message so far. Enforcement has ramped up over time, with about 400 drivers being cited in May alone.

But there is another telling statistic, one that may address the question about whether the new ordinance makes city streets safer.

Of those who were given a $50 fine for using an electronic device while motoring, 62 were arrested by police.

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I’ll let that sink in. No, you cannot be arrested for the hands-free violation in Tucson, even repeated violations will only result in higher fines.

A spokesperson for the city said those arrests were for separate charges involving the driver such as driving while under the influence, driving with a suspended driver’s license and trying to set land speed records on city streets — also known as criminal speeding. All offenses that can make city streets a danger to other drivers.

So for those who think that they won’t be pulled over, think again — the Road Runner has 1,091 people you can talk to about how serious the Tucson Police Department is about texting while driving.

Down the road
  • On Monday, July 2, southbound North Euclid Avenue at East Grant Road will be closed to traffic so that work crews can mill and pave a section of Euclid. The closure will be in place from about 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Motorists and bicyclists traveling south on Euclid at Grant will be allowed to turn eastbound or westbound on Grant. Northbound travel on Euclid will not be affected by this work.
  • On Tuesday, July 3, from about 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., North Park Avenue just south of East Grant Road will be closed to traffic to allow work crews to asphalt patch a trench on Park Avenue. During the closure, motorists and bicyclists traveling north on Park will not have access to Grant. Motorists and bicyclists traveling south on Park approaching Grant will be allowed to turn eastbound and westbound on Grant.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@tucson.com or 573-4197.