Will Arizona Finally Join 47 Other States and Ban Texting While Driving in 2019?

Arizona is one of just three states that does not ban all residents from texting while driving.
Arizona is one of just three states that does not ban all residents from texting while driving. Lord-Jim/Flickr
Laws banning adults from texting and driving exist in all but three states: Arizona, Montana, and Missouri.

And after years of attempts, the death of Officer Clayton Townsend might motivate Arizona lawmakers to finally ban texting and driving during the new legislative session that started on Monday.

On the evening of January 7, a driver on the Loop 101 near Scottsdale struck and killed Townsend, of the Salt River Police Department, who had pulled over another driver. The suspect told detectives that he had been texting and driving at the time of the crash, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

There have been many attempts in the Legislature to ban texting while driving in Arizona. None have succeeded. In the legal vacuum, some municipalities have ordinances in place that attempt to prohibit the activity, including the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The closest thing Arizona has to a texting-while-driving ban arrived last summer, when a cellular-use ban that only applies to drivers under 18 took effect on July 1. Governor Doug Ducey signed the measure into law during the previous legislative session. (In Missouri, texting is illegal only for motorists under the age of 21.)

Also last session, a universal texting ban sponsored by State Senator Steve Farley received a unanimous vote to send the measure out of the Transportation Committee, but the bill never received a vote of the whole Senate.

Farley, who lost the Democratic nomination for governor and just announced a bid for mayor of Tucson, sponsored one texting and driving ban after another for a decade during his time in the Legislature.

He will not be able to file his customary bill this session because of Arizona's resign-to-run law, having opted to campaign for governor.

Whether a GOP legislator is willing to take up Farley's crusade remains to be seen. Republicans control both chambers, and odds are that a member of the GOP will have better luck than Farley in securing a floor vote for a blanket distracted-driving ban.

One official who thinks that a distracted-driving bill might be on its way is Alberto Gutier, the director of the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

In an email, Gutier relayed that over the weekend, moderate Republican Senator Kate Brophy McGee told him at a GOP meeting that she intends to sponsor a bill to ban texting and driving.

"I think that is not only long coming, but our governor ... indicated last year that after signing the young drivers ban that he would wanted [sic] a more comprehensive bill," Gutier wrote. "Officer Townsend and our drivers deserve this in his memory and our officers at Salt River PD."

Brophy McGee did not respond to a question on whether she plans on sponsoring the bill.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus suggested that new House Speaker Rusty Bowers would support a measure banning distracted driving.

Bowers "would obviously need to see the language of a proposed bill before determining whether or not he supports it, but he is generally supportive of efforts to ban distracted driving," Matthew Specht wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times.

A texting and driving ban appears to have the support of the Republican governor. Ducey told reporters last week that he would've signed a distracted-driving bill last year, had one made it to his desk.

"I want to make sure that we prevent and avoid this type of tragedy into the future," Ducey said in response to the fatal collision on Loop 101.

According to the "Crash Facts" report issued last year by the Arizona Department of Transportation, there were nearly 3,000 crashes in 2017 involving a distraction caused by an electronic device. Among all of the crashes, speeding was the most common driver violation, ADOT found.

The latest Arizona city to ban texting while driving is Glendale, where the City Council unanimously approved a distracted driving ordinance on Tuesday that bans the use of handheld electronic devices, unless the device is in hands-free mode. The ordinance takes effect next month.

The West Valley city joins Surprise and El Mirage, which have also enacted similar handheld-device bans. Phoenix city code includes a less expansive ban that targets texting and says drivers cannot "send or receive a written message while the motor vehicle is in motion."

Update, 10:40 a.m.: A bill to ban texting and driving has officially arrived, courtesy of Representative John Kavanagh, a conservative Republican from Fountain Hills. HB 2069, prefiled on January 14, would ban drivers from "using a wireless communication device to manually write or send a written message." The law would not affect drivers using a navigation system.

Civil penalties would start at $100 for a first violation that does not involve an accident, and go up from there. If a texting driver gets into an accident, he or she would face a $500 penalty; if the accident causes the death of another person, the proposed penalty is $10,000. 
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty