Two distracted driving bills vie for passage


There are two competing measures passing through the Arizona legislature aimed at curbing distracted driving on a statewide level.

The first is Senate Bill 1165, which would make it illegal to hold a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. Hands-free voice-based communication would be exempt from the law, but it would ban texting and driving on a state level. It also would ban drivers holding their phones during phone calls. An exception is made for contacting emergency services.

The proposal, which passed through the Arizona State Senate by a 20-10 margin, is being pushed through by a bipartisan group of legislators. The bill was supported by all the Democrats in the Senate, while just 7 of the 10 Republican senators voted in favor of its passage.

The impetus for these proposals can be traced back to the Jan. 8 death of Clayton Townsend, a five-year veteran of the Salt River Police Department. Townsend was conducting a routine traffic stop when he was hit by a driver who later admitted to texting while driving.

The eight-page bill classifies the offence as a civil penalty. It states the fine for a driver’s first offense would cost between $75 and $149, while the second offense would carry a fine between $150 and $250.

“This addressed the root of all evils, which is texting while driving,” said Lupe Contreras, a Democratic senator from Phoenix. “I think that, unless you don’t own a smartphone, we’re all guilty of it … we need to get good legislation passed, and this is good legislation.”

David Bradley, a Democratic senator from Tucson, agreed with Contreras.

“Many cities already have texting and driving policies but they’re inconsistent,” Bradley said. “This allows folks to have some consistency.”

J.D. Mesnard, a Republican senator from Phoenix, disagreed. He calls the title of the texting bill a misnomer, claiming that it’s really a handheld ban.

That’s why Mesnard introduced his own bill to the state Senate, SB 1141. The one-page bill targets “distracted driving” as a broader problem rather than just phone usage.

The bill states that if a driver both engages “in any activity that is not related to the actual operation of the motor vehicle that in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the motor vehicle” and “the person operates a motor vehicle in a manner that is an immediate hazard to another person, a motor vehicle or property or the person does not exercise reasonable control of a motor vehicle under the circumstances,” then said driver could be given a ticket.

“The bill focuses on the cause and effect of distracted driving, doing something not involved in the act of driving and having it affect your driving,” Mesnard said. “All distractions are dangerous, whether it’s shaving, eating or texting.”

Bradley claims that the distracted driving bill is too broad and lacks definitions. Meanwhile, Contreras believes that the distracted driving bill is unnecessary given the language of SB 1141. He says the language of the texting bill “gets to the root of what has taken lives.”

Some Pima students also have voiced concern.

“I think that as long as you have your eyes on the road and one hand on the wheel, it shouldn’t count,” said Pima student Andromita Avenetti. “Drinking something wouldn’t count because you can still look at the road. I think it depends on just your eyes and being able to have one hand free.”

“You would have to go with a more concrete description when it comes to what laws you’re going to introduce,” said Pima student Joseph Reilly. “For instance, being on your phone and having it in your hand; that’s something I’d be OK with being against the law because that means you’re interacting with it and it’s splitting your attention.”

“Well, define ‘distracted driving,’ ” said Pima student Caroline Hauglie. “Because I think texting and calling (while driving) is very bad, but eating and drinking as distracted driving is bullshit. There needs to be a better definition of distracted driving.”

Mesnard’s bill passed through the Senate as well, meaning that both bills will have to pass through the state house of representatives and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in order to become a law.

While the vote in the house remains uncertain, both sides expressed optimism that Ducey would sign their bills should they pass through the house.

“I think I know him (Ducey) well,” Contreras said. “And I think he’s making the calls to get this thing (texting and driving bill) passed.”