PHOENIX — Sen. Steve Farley (D-Tucson) wants drivers to put down their phones and pay attention.
He’s wanted that for years, but the perennial statewide anti-texting while driving bills have been unsuccessful – going back to 2009. This year he’s back again with SB 1261, which would mainly make using a phone to send or check text messages a fineable offense.
“The ultimate penalty for texting while driving is death,” Farley said. “Once people know this is against the law everywhere in the state, they won’t do it.”
Farley wants to pull people from the jaws of death — but his bill lacks teeth.
If caught, a motorist could be fined anywhere from $25-99 for their first offense and between $100-200 for subsequent offenses. If another law is violated at the same time, then the motorist could be fined for that one as well — not to mention the $4,000 price tag and class 2 misdemeanor for killing or causing serious bodily harm to somebody while texting.
It sounds like those texts may get pricey, but here’s the problem: it’s difficult to prove and the definition is open to interpretation. The bill defines electronic messages as “data that is read from or entered into a wireless communication device for the purpose of communicating with another person.”
Whether this covers passive social media use is hard to say. There is no definition given for “communication with another person,” so a driver watching someone’s Snap Story or Facebook Live broadcast may not technically be communicating with that person.
Using a phone while driving isn’t totally banned — the GPS function of a phone or changing the song on Spotify constitute a defense to this charge, and a “hands-free device” is a general get-out-of-fines-free card. This complicates things for law enforcement and in Pima County, made enforcement a difficult judgement call for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
“Basically it’s going to be what you observe,” PCSD Operations Chief Karl Woolridge said. “When you see someone messing with their phone, unless you are close enough to see what they are doing, you have to have them admit they were doing something wrong.”
Tucson faced a similar problem when the citywide ban on texting while driving left out other phone-using behaviors that could potentially lead to the same problem. That has changed, and now Tucson is a no-touch kind of town: if you are using a phone without a hands-free device, you can get a hefty fine of up to $500 and as of February 1st, is now a primary offense.
“A law alone won’t fix this, you need education and you need enforcement,” Farley said.
Part of that education will be new additions to the written test taken by new drivers that will ask them to recognize behaviors that lead to distracted driving. Additionally, anti-texting while driving signs will be posted next to “Welcome to Arizona” signs at the state border so that out of state visitors will get the memo.
Arizona and Montana are the only states that lack a statewide texting while driving ban. Last year Farley tried to change that, but his bill was never heard in committee. He was luckier this year — it passed through the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee with a unanimous vote in favor, meaning the next step will be the Senate floor.
It getting beyond there is another story, if history is to be believed. There are those who argue that such a ban violates Constitutional rights and usurp the 4th Amendment, which is protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The Arizona Citizens Defense League is one such group though usually sticks to 2nd Amendment issues. AzCDL’s lobbyist had signed in as against SB 1261 but did not speak at the committee meeting.
“It’s another incursion of government into the private sphere of the individual,” Charles Heller, the AzCDL communications director, said. “We have a history of being against this, we are against seatbelt laws, helmet laws. You prosecute for the harm, not the potential.”
Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the school of journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at email@example.com.