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Arizona House to mull 3 bills aimed at distracted driving

Posted at 12:01 PM, Apr 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-18 09:07:50-04

PHOENIX — Arizona House lawmakers will get to pick and choose among three proposed laws that are designed to deal with distracted driving caused by cellphone use, Speaker Rusty Bowers announced after a closed-door meeting Wednesday of majority Republicans.

Bowers had held off on scheduling votes amid differences among Republicans about which measure, if any, should go forward. Two of the bills are versions of a total ban on cellphone use while driving. One of those would allow officers to make a traffic stop of phone violations, while the other would allow them to write tickets only if they stop someone for a different offense, like speeding.

The third bill would just strengthen the state's existing distracted driving law without explicitly addressing cellphones. Votes are expected as soon as Thursday.

Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee has pushed for a complete ban on hand-held cellphone use as a primary offense, meaning officers need no other reason to make a traffic stop.

"Primary shows everywhere it's been tried that it is enforceable and that it consistently reduces fatalities by 16% everywhere it's been tried, including here in Arizona," Brophy McGee said.

She hailed Bowers for agreeing to allow the measures to go to a vote despite strong opposition from some in his own caucus.

"I truly thank him for finding a path forward, and I know which bill I'm cheering for," she said.

Arizona is one of three states with no ban on texting while driving. Bills to restrict phone use behind the wheel have been introduced for a decade but haven't advanced amid concerns by Republicans about creating a "nanny state" that overregulates people's behavior.

Proponents of the cellphone ban point to the death of a Salt River Police Department officer in January after a distracted driver lost control on a Phoenix-area freeway. Relatives of Salt River tribal police officer Clayton Townsend and others who have died in distracted driving crashes have given emotional testimony to lawmakers, carrying photos of their loved ones around the Capitol.

"They will have an opportunity to vote their conscience on all these three bills as best they see fit," Bowers said. "In my view that gives all Arizonans -- especially the people who have gone through this very personal trauma -- an opportunity to have their voice heard and to have that trauma addressed in some way."

The bills banning hand-held phone use would make it illegal for drivers to write or read anything on their phone or to hold it unless the vehicle is stopped. Calls to 911 would be allowed. Police could issue warnings until 2021, when they could begin writing tickets carrying fines of $75 to $149 for a first offense and up to $250 for a second.

The more than two dozen cities and counties with their own laws banning texting or holding a phone could continue writing tickets.

A separate proposal by Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard doesn't explicitly ban texting, but rather outlaws any behavior that isn't related to driving if it causes an "immediate hazard" or prevents the driver from controlling their vehicles.