You see it every day. Maybe you’re driving to the grocery store to pick up a pint of your favorite ice cream, or you’re taking your kids to school or running a quick errand to the bank. You look over and catch a glimpse of a driver in the lane next to you, or at the traffic signal, and they are absolutely fixated on an illuminated object in their hand, not the road.
Visions of a looming tragedy flash through your mind, and you think to yourself, “I shouldn’t have to worry about my safety just driving to pick up some ice cream or taking my kids to school.” Pedestrians and bicyclists share those same fears.
This is personal to me because I’m charged with the safety of the people in Oro Valley. Anytime somebody is injured in a car crash, I take it personally. And heaven forbid we have a fatality. The safety of our residents and the people who visit here is a very personal thing because I’ve taken an oath to protect. And if somebody can’t drive to the store or the doctor or the dentist without fear of someone running them down that’s not a very good feeling. Traffic safety is a quality of life issue.
That’s why I am encouraged by the work our state legislature is making towards a state-wide hands-free statute. Oro Valley has been fortunate. For over two years now, we’ve had a hands-free ordinance in place. That helps law enforcement, but it took education and outreach with our residents to make it successful. We worked very hard to educate and help the public understand why it was important. And our residents do understand.
Unfortunately, sometimes good ideas only gain traction after a tragedy. We’ve had our share of those in this area, and the recent death of Salt River police officer Clayton Townsend near Scottsdale is another terrible reminder. I watched his father-in-law speak of the loss his daughter, grandson and their entire family have suffered; it was heart-wrenching. It’s pretty tough to say you can’t support finding a way to help reduce these tragedies.
We know we’re not going to eliminate all distractions. The ideal would be if people would spend 100 percent of their time focused on the job and the task of driving. But most of us nowadays depend on our phones. For personal use, for business, for whatever reasons, people have to use their phones. So the idea of hands free is: let’s get the phones out of the hands of drivers so they actually have their hands on the wheel.
When Oro Valley began looking into this several years ago, the police department felt the best way to address distracted driving was to work on a hands-free ordinance primarily because people need their phone. We are not trying to tell people they can’t use their phones while driving, we just wanted to get the phones out of the hands of the drivers. We feel like it’s working, because patrol officers report they’re seeing fewer people with their phones out. I’m sure that’s partially because people see a patrol car and quickly hide their phone. A few weeks ago, an officer in an unmarked vehicle pulled over three drivers who were using their phones in a matter of minutes.
Let me be clear though, this is not about writing tickets. This is not about going out and making money. This is about making our roadways safe. It’s like anything else, we have a lot of laws and if everybody followed the rules, it would be great. It hasn’t been for a lack of effort on the part of legislators over the last few years, and a state-wide statute would further assist law enforcement and the public.
Right now there are 21 jurisdictions with hands-free ordinances. So drivers in Arizona are thinking, if I drive in Oro Valley the law says one thing, but if I drive in another town it might be different.
That’s why I’m encouraged by the efforts of State Senator Kate Brophy McGee to push for a state-wide hands free statute. She understands the rules need to be the same. That’s why we have state laws, so it applies across the entire state. Not only that, it would be much simpler to communicate with the public. When the Town of Clifton updated their statute and modeled it after Oro Valley’s, they actually used the same signs we had. They just removed Oro Valley from the sign and added Clifton. The communication component with the public is important too. Ultimately, everyone in law enforcement wants each and every resident to get home safely, whether they’re getting ice cream, going to school or seeing a movie. I hope that’s something we can all agree on.
Daniel Sharp is the Oro Valley Police Department Police Chief.