Arizona Capitol

It Soon Will Be Illegal to Text and Drive in Arizona

Soon to be illegal.
Soon to be illegal. Lord-Jim/Flickr
The Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday passed two bills that would prohibit forms of distracted driving.

One of the approved bills, sponsored by Republican State Representative Noel Campbell, targets people who use their cellphones while driving. The other bill, sponsored by State Senator J.D. Mesnard, more broadly targets "distracted driving."

Governor Doug Ducey has indicated his support for Campbell's bill, but it's unknown where he stands on Mesnard's.

Campbell's legislation would basically prevent people from using their hands with their phones while driving in Arizona. That means no texting, but also: no apps. No email. No Netflix.

Voice-based communication would still be permitted, meaning drivers can continue using their Bluetooth earpieces or Apple Watches, so long as their eyes stay on the road and hands stay on the steering wheel.

First offenders would be subject to a ticket between $75 and $149. Repeat offenders would be required to pay between $150 and $250.

Lawmakers included a grace period in the bill. Until January 1, 2021, cops who catch anyone driving while using their phones would only be permitted to issue a warning.

The legislation sponsored by Mesnard prohibits anyone from driving while engaging in "any activity that is not related to the actual driving of the motor vehicle in a manner that visibly interferes with safely driving the motor vehicle."

Distracted driving would fall under the statute prohibiting reckless driving, which is classified as a misdemeanor.

Mesnard's bill does not include a grace period.

The broader distracted-driving bill passed more narrowly (31 to 29) than the bill targeting cellphone users. Supporters said it better accounted for the range of activities that can interfere with safe driving.

"Cellphones are just one issue in an myriad of issues that cause distracted driving," said Republican State Representative Anthony Kern.

Republican State Representative Ben Toma, whose sister was killed by a distracted driver, also voted in favor of the bill. “If this bill does nothing more than save one life, we should support it,” he said.

Opponents said it is too broad. "People lived and drove thousands, millions of miles, before smartphones were invented," said Democratic State Representative Diego Rodriguez. "Things happen. Children happen. Food happens. Random things happen."

Critics also raised concerns that it could promote racial profiling, a claim Republican supporters denied.

More legislators voted for the narrower texting-while-driving bill.

Those who voted no said that targeting phone users was still too broad. "Was your phone on your lap? You broke this law," said Republican State Representative Warren Petersen.

Until today, Arizona was one of three states that had not passed any laws prohibiting texting and driving.

Legislators have tried and failed to ban distracted driving for years. The issue gained momentum after the death of Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend in January. Authorities said the driver who killed Townsend had been texting when he struck the officer. Another police officer, Phoenix's Paul Rutherford, was killed by a suspected texting driver on March 22.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh