PHOENIX — Invoking the name of a dead highway patrolman, a Senate panel voted Wednesday to enact Arizona’s first-ever law banning texting while driving.
The unanimous vote of the Government Committee came after testimony by relatives of Tim Huffman, the Department of Public Safety officer who was killed last year after the driver of an empty fuel truck, looking at his Facebook page on his cellphone, plowed into Huffman while he was investigating an accident on Interstate 8 east of Yuma.
But the version of SB 1102 that was approved would not have specifically made illegal what truck driver Jorge Espinoza was doing.
That’s because the measure crafted by Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, was amended to outlaw only sending text messages. Reading messages would not be covered.
Farley did not support the change.
But he agreed to it, at least for now, after Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the panel, said the measure was politically doomed without it. Similar measures Farley sponsored have failed every year since 2007.
Over that time, almost every other state has enacted some sort of cellphone restriction, even if it covers only young drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association shows Montana is the only other state without some law.
Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he’s not sure there is a need for a special law. He said motorists already can be cited under existing laws.
Farley conceded the point. He said the Department of Public Safety, which has made distracted driving a focus, issued more than 19,000 tickets in an eight-month period, citing motorists under a section of law for driving at a speed that is not reasonable or prudent.
“There is no speed that is reasonable and prudent to drive at as long as you’re texting,” he said.
Farley also said DPS now has set up its accident reports to be able to track mishaps involving people who were texting. He said in the same eight-month period there were 2,400 such incidents.
And he said if there’s any doubt a special law is needed, people need look only at the incident involving Huffman.
He said Espinoza’s lawyer argued to the jury during closing arguments of his second-degree murder trial that there is no specific law making it illegal to use a cellphone while driving. Changing the law, Farley said, will preclude that from happening again.
That point was underscored by Huffman’s survivors.
“Eight seconds is what it took to kill my brother,” testified Warren Huffman, noting the evidence presented at trial, including a video from a camera mounted in the cab, showed how long Espinoza had taken his eyes off the road.
And sister Tammy Huffman said Espinoza was so distracted he failed to notice two ambulances, three DPS patrol cars and a firetruck.
Kavanagh said he was sympathetic, but political reality is this Legislature will not enact an absolute ban on the use of electronic devices by motorists. “But I did want to see something go through,” he said.
“I’m not saying reading while you’re driving is a good thing to do,” Kavanaugh said. “But it’s not as dangerous as looking down and entering text while you’re driving.”
Talking with reporters afterward, Lisa Huffman Medina acknowledged that the now-amended legislation would not address the situation that resulted in her brother’s death. But she said it’s better than the situation now in Arizona where there are no laws.
“It’s the beginning of getting things going and trying to make a change,” she said. “It has to start somewhere. Why not here?”
There are other exceptions, including inputting instructions into a global positioning system and even entering a phone number to make a call.
Less clear is whether a ban on sending texts also covers technology that allows messages to be input by voice rather than keyboard. Farley said he hopes to ban that, too, because those programs often misinterpret the spoken words, forcing drivers to look down at their phones anyway.