On Jan. 8, a Scottsdale resident accidentally struck and killed a Salt River police officer while texting and driving. This incident refueled the constantly burning debate about a statewide distracted driving ban in Arizona, one of only three states without a law to prohibit all texting while driving. Two weeks after the officer’s death, state Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix) introduced a bill to prohibit handheld cell phone use while driving.
Sen. McGee introduced the bill, SB 1165, at a conference while standing with the family of the slain officer, calling cell phone use while driving the “DUI issue of our time.” The bill would ban all Arizona drivers, regardless of age, from distracted driving. Sen. McGee said SB 1165 will go further than previously failed bills because hers is a sweeping ban on all handheld use, whereas other attempted bills only banned texting, which she said is difficult to prove. “This type of ordinance has already been adopted by, I think, 23 counties,” McGee said. “Law enforcement have experience with it and say we can enforce it.”
Arizona lawmakers have attempted to pass a distracted driving bill more than 10 times in the past. Former state Sen. Steve Farley (D-Tucson) introduced multiple bills since 2007, but was constantly met with resistance. But McGee said she’s hopeful about the initial momentum this bipartisan bill has already received. Eight Democrats and four Republicans cosponsor the bill, including Randall Friese, Karen Fann, David Bradley and Noel Campbell.
“This used to be a libertarian, ‘less-government-is-best’ kind of issue,” McGee said. “But now, even some of my most conservative Republican colleagues see how out of control the issue is and want to stop it. It’s not really a partisan issue anymore.”
Among the Republicans changing their stance on this issue is McGee herself.
“To be honest, I used to think that I could drive and talk on my cell phone,” McGee said. “But I spent the past few years on the Transportation and Technology Committee. It totally changed my outlook and driving habits, and I am reformed. I’ll never drive while on my cell ever again.”
Although over 20 Arizona municipalities already have already passed some form of ordinance on distracted driving, state senators who support the bill say the time is needed for a statewide ban, because individual municipal ordinances create a “patchwork” across the state.
“There is data to support these kinds of ordinances,” McGee said. “The public opinion and law enforcement support is so strong for this.”
Once such law enforcement officer supporting the bill is Oro Valley Police Chief Daniel Sharp, whose community passed its own distracted driving ordinance in January 2017.
“What we’ve seen, at least anecdotally, is fewer people using their phones,” Sharp said. “There’s been a downtick in crashes and we’re seeing fewer citations. I think people are paying more attention.”
When Oro Valley first implemented the ordinance, OVPD ran a nine-month educational session, where officers stopped texting drivers, warned them of the risks of distracted driving, and informed them about the new ordinance. Over the course of those nine months, OVPD officers made an estimated 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 total cell phone use, it shows a nearly 50 percent drop in the amount of times OVPD officers stopped drivers for distracted driving.
“We know people aren’t going to stop using their phones, so instead of saying not to use your phone, we’ll have them do it hands-free and keep their eyes on the road,” Sharp said. “With just the ordinances, it’s unfair for the public to ask what’s the rule in this community versus the rule in that community… We want to make a change in the driving culture.”
Arizona does have a statewide texting-while-driving ban, though only for minors who recently received their driver’s license or permit. SB 1080, which began July 1, 2018, prohibits instructional permit holders from operating a vehicle while using a cell phone, as well as prohibits licensees during their first six months behind the wheel or until their 18th birthday from operating a vehicle while using a cell phone. But even Gov. Ducey, while signing the bill, admitted it did not go far enough, saying: “I’d be in favor of a law that goes further, banning texting while driving for all minors.”
“It’s going to be heard by the public safety and transportation departments next week,” McGee said. “And I’m hopeful and confident we have the votes to get it into the House.”