When state Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, offered the latest bill this year attempting to ban texting while driving in Arizona, he faced strong opposition from Senate President Andy Biggs that helped derail the measure.
Biggs, a Republican, assigned SB 1102 to a track requiring it to win approval from four committees to be considered by the full Senate. It made it through one.
When Farley attempted to revive the measure as an amendment to another bill, Biggs argued that a law already on the books can be used when drivers are distracted by texting.
As a result, Arizona remains one of five states without a law barring texting by all drivers despite attempts to create one for nine straight legislative sessions.
But does Arizona law allow law enforcement to cite drivers for texting while driving? It depends how you look at the data and who’s answering the question.
A Cronkite News review of Arizona Department of Public Safety citations found 505 instances between November 2013, when the agency started recording such information, and March in which officers listed texting as contributing to citations.
That was out of more than 10,000 citations involving distracted driving handed out under a law against driving on a highway “at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances, conditions and actual and potential hazards then existing.”
The most common distraction listed with those citations was occupants of vehicles, with 2,677, followed by cellphone use, with 2,474, and looking at things outside the vehicle, with 2,044.
While an Arizona law bars school bus drivers from using wireless devices, efforts to create a broader ban have foundered. In addition to Farley’s latest bill, legislation to ban wireless device use by drivers under the age of 18 wasn’t heard in committee this year.
DPS officers try to use laws that are already on the books to prevent distracted driving, according to Raul Garcia, a spokesman for the agency.
“There is nothing in Title 28 (traffic laws) of the Arizona Revised Statutes that is titled, ‘distracted driving,’ Garcia said in an email. “Distracted driving behavior mimics fatigued or impaired driving behavior. Several ARS statutes can be violated during instances of driving distracted such as: unsafe lane usage, no turn signals, following too close, speed to impede traffic, driving left of center and colliding with another vehicle or object.
In response to a public records request, DPS provided data on more than 34,000 citations given under various laws in which distracted driving was a factor. Of those, 1,424 citations involved texting, while 8,917 involved cellphone use, 8,031 involved other occupants in the car and 6,813 involved outside distractions.
DPS Capt. Chris Hemmen said officers determine whether a driver is distracted by observation and by talking with him or her.
“We get the answers through conversation and good police work, but we can’t always verify that they were driving distracted,” he said.
Because of that, Hemmen said distracted driving is a grossly underreported.
“If we can’t verify that the driver was distracted, then it’s a ‘no,’” he said.
In an interview, Garcia said that as a patrol officer he saw distracted drivers appear to be drunk or sleepy.
“They will be weaving because they aren’t paying attention with eyes down at their lap,” he said. “They will have varying speeds with the flow of traffic.”
The law on reasonable and prudent speed is one of the ways DPS combats distracted driving on highways, Farley said.
“If the officer pulls you over and says, ‘This is why you are getting this ticket,’ that is a powerful direct lesson to that distracted driver,’” Farley said. “If you educate the public that we’re doing this, next time we see you wandering into the median and back, and then we pull up and see you’re texting, you’re busted.”
But Farley said that isn’t good enough, which he said is why Arizona would benefit from a law against texting while driving.
— Kelcie Grega (@KelcieGrega) April 30, 2015
“That’s why I keep trying to get the law passed,” he said. “It’s pretty stupid to drink and drive too, and we have a lot of laws about that. Just having a law saying it is illegal would be a step ahead.”
He took issue with Biggs’ argument that Arizona has enough laws on the books to deter texting while driving.
“To have a lawmaker who is a part of passing hundreds of laws every year saying we have too many laws on the books as an excuse to not have a law the protects public safety, is just disingenuous,” Farley said.
Biggs didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment sent through Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for the Senate Republican majority, and to his Senate email.+
Farley said Arizona’s lack of a law against distracted driving in general prevented authorities from charging a truck driver with murder after he struck and killed a DPS officer near Yuma in 2013 while he was allegedly distracted by his smartphone.
— Kelcie Grega (@KelcieGrega) April 30, 2015
“If that’s not a reason to get a state law, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said distracted driving is a horrendous practice. He said educating drivers about about the dangers of texting while driving would be a good approach.
“There is nothing wrong with getting on the side of the road to use your phone,” he said.
But Gutier said the most important law is common sense.
“If people use common sense you don’t need a law,” he said.
But Farley said a law would focus attention on the danger of texting while driving and save lives.
“We’ve now got enforcement, we’re working on the education part, but we still need the law,” he said.