Arizona is one of only two states without a ban on texting and driving. While towns like Oro Valley restrict distracted driving with local ordinances, complete statewide limitations do not exist. This leads to conflicting rules in close proximity to one another. Take Pima County’s recent hands-free cellphone law for instance, which isn’t shared by other Arizona counties.
“This is becoming the next DUI epidemic,” said Brendan Lyons, executive director of the non-profit Look - Save A Life. “Before, when you saw someone swerving while driving, you thought they were drunk. But now, when you see someone swerving, you think they’re texting.”
In 2013, while on a morning bike ride, Lyons (then a firefighter) and his girlfriend were struck by a distracted driver from behind at 45 mph. After months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, Lyons set his sights on stopping this nationwide problem.
Lyons said one of the main issues with “texting and driving” laws is faulty language. When a law is reduced to simply “texting,” equally distracting activities like scrolling through social media aren’t banned, as it’s not texting. Another issue with the many current laws is the labeling of texting and driving as a secondary offense, Lyons said, meaning police cannot pull drivers over for texting alone.
Pima County’s hands-free cellphone law changed to mark distracted driving as a primary offense, but it’s not a ruling shared across Arizona.
This is why he argues for a primary, “hands free” ordinance. Another reasons Lyons opposes only a texting and driving law? The driver who struck him wasn’t even texting, they were answering a phone call.
“Hands free doesn’t mean risk free, or caution free,” Lyons said. “But it cuts down on the problem. It’s an important tool.”
Lyons compares distracted driving laws to DUI laws. It won’t outright fix the problem, but it will mitigate and deter. And if the ordinances in Oro Valley are any example, it may be true.
“The level of impairment from a DUI is just as bad as cellphone use while driving,” said Oro Valley Police Department Lt. Matt Horetski. “And I do think these laws are helping.”
When Oro Valley first implemented its distracted driving ordinance last January, OVPD started a nine-month educational session, stopping texting drivers to warn them of the risks and new ordinance. Over the course of that educational process, OVPD made just over 1,200 stops related to distracted driving. In an equal stretch of time since the end of the educational sessions, OVPD made 606 stops, 141 resulting in citations.
While this doesn’t prove a statistical drop in cellphone use, it shows a nearly 50 percent drop in the amount of times OVPD officers stopped drivers for cellphone use.
“It definitely shows a reduction in stops,” Lt. Horetski said. “It’s making a difference. But to really change it will require a cultural shift from where we are right now.”
According to Lyons, part of the necessary cultural shift is to treat distracted driving like drunk driving. This is something OVPD is working on, whereas DUI deployments for police are common practice, Lt. Horetski is planning for officers to have distracted driving deployments as well.
“A common misconception is that it won’t happen to you,” Lyons said. “But it can and does.”
According to Look - Save A Life, the average distraction behind the wheel lasts three to five seconds. Traveling at an average speed of fifty miles an hour, this is akin to driving roughly the length of a football field without looking.
Lyons hopes to get Arizona on board as a state to ban cellphone use while driving. Although Arizona does have a kind of distracted driving law, according to Lyons it’s faulty and vague, and not doing enough to save lives.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about politics,” Lyons said. “It’s about public safety.”