PHOENIX — The Republican architect of the state’s new texting-while-driving ban signed into law Monday by Gov. Doug Ducey says it could not have been done if a former Democrat senator from Tucson had not paved the way.
“This is a bipartisan bill,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix. “This is not Republican, this is not Democrat,” she said after the measure was signed into law. “This is public safety, this is public health.”
It is also the 13th time similar legislation has been introduced. But all the dozen prior versions, many of them shepherded by Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson, ended up faltering before this year’s effort.
Brophy McGee said success this year had nothing to do with the bill having a Republican sponsor.
“I give Steve every credit for having banged the drum for these years and finally got it into most of our thick skulls,” she told Capitol Media Services.
Farley, at Monday’s signing ceremony at the Capitol, said it isn’t about who gets credit. “This is about making sure the victims’ families voices get heard and we can save lives on a roadway,” he said.
Part of what pushed this one over the top was the death in January of Clayton Townsend. The officer from the Salt River Police Department, who was out of his vehicle talking to a motorist, was struck and killed by another driver who admitted to texting while behind the wheel.
“I would give the credit to Toni Townsend,” Ducey said of Clayton’s mother.
Toni Townsend said she and her family celebrated approval of the bill the day before, on Easter Sunday, with the family going to the cemetery where her son is buried 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.”
She acknowledged that, strictly speaking, the statewide ban does not take effect for about 20 months. But Townsend said that, at least in the interim, “it’s all about changing behavior” by educating motorists about the specific problems of using a cellphone while driving.
Among those who was unaware of the hazards was the governor. Ducey, who is now driven almost everywhere 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. “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. So my behavior will change as well.”
Some things you need to know about the new law:
When does it take effect?
While the law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2021, this doesn’t preclude an offending motorist from being stopped between now and then, though police can issue only warnings for violating the new law until the effective date.
What will be forbidden?
The law will make it illegal to “physically hold” or “support with any part of the body” any cellphone or other portable wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle. There was some debate — and no clear answer — on what constitutes “support” of a phone, whether that means in the lap, in the pocket or elsewhere. But from a practical standpoint, if it’s in a lap it is unlikely that a police officer would see it there and pull someone over. The law bans not only chatting on the phone but writing, sending and reading text messages, emails, instant messages or internet data.
What are the key exceptions?
Drivers can make calls if they use earpieces, headphones or any type of device worn on a wrist to conduct voice communications. Vehicles with built-in interfaces with cellphones also are exempt as long as they can be operated with minimal interactions, meaning simply pressing a button to active or deactivate. People also can “read” texts if these are translated into voice. And they can send texts if done through voice commands. A phone’s maps and GPS can be used if in a hands-free mode.
What about other types of devices?
The same restrictions on holding a cellphone also apply to any “stand-alone electronic device.” That means anything with stored audio or video. So, no hanging on to the phone while listening to previously recorded podcasts or watching “Game of Thrones.”
What about watching live TV?
That already is illegal. But the new law clarifies that the statute does not apply to mapping services that update images as well as to cars and trucks with built-in video screens that provide information about the vehicle. The legislation also adds a provision designed to protect people who have dash cams and similar devices that continuously record what’s going on, either in the vehicle or on the road.
Are there other types of operations that are not subject to the law?
Motorists can use a cellphone to “report illegal activity or summon emergency help.” Also not subject to the new restrictions are licensed amateur radio operators and fleet drivers with commercial licenses communicating with a dispatcher.
And for those who are still attached to their citizens band radios, you can keep yakking away, good buddy.
What about when I come to a stop?
Motorists who are parked are exempt and can call and text at will. Ditto if you’re at a stoplight or waiting for a train to clear a railroad crossing. But a stop sign doesn’t count. Nor does being stopped for a school bus.
What are the fines?
A first offense carries a minimum fine of $75, up to $149. Subsequent violations result in fines of at least $150 and no more than $250. But the offenses accumulate no points on a motorist’s license. There is an exception: Licenses can be suspended if someone is violating the new law and causes a serious injury or death.
But what about all those existing local laws?
Those remain in effect and can still be enforced, including provisions that are stricter than what’s in this new law. So if a local ordinance has no exception for stoplights, motorists can still be cited. But as of Jan. 1, 2021, any provision that does not mirror the state law will disappear.
What about the “distracted driving” law?
That is a separate bill that went to Ducey on Monday and allows police to stop and cite someone if they are doing something other than driving, whether texting or eating a ham sandwich, and it creates an immediate hazard or the motorist does not exercise reasonable control of the vehicle. That measure, if approved, would take effect later this summer. Ducey said he is still reviewing that measure.