PHOENIX – Bills to restrict distracted driving, ranging from attempts to outlaw texting to banning cellphone use entirely, have failed repeatedly at the Arizona State Legislature in recent years.
But after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in December that states enact laws banning the use of all portable electronic devices while driving, some proponents see promise that legislation will succeed this session.
That optimism centers chiefly on a Republican lawmaker’s bill, scheduled for committee action Thursday in the House, that would to ban texting while driving.
“I think there’s no question the public agrees we need this law in the books,” said state Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who has authored previous bills to ban texting and cellphone use by drivers. “I feel optimistic this year because there’s a lot of politicians on board.”
Thirty-five states already have laws against texting while driving, and the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2010 banned texting by drivers of large trucks and buses.
Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, author of this year’s bill, said Arizona needs a clear law on the matter, in part because Phoenix already bans texting while driving and Tucson is close to doing so.
“If the professionals who make their living while driving have a hard time texting while driving, then the question becomes, ‘What about the amateur that doesn’t make a living while driving and gets distracted?’” he said.
His bill, HB 2512, would allow drivers to text while their vehicles aren’t moving and would still allow them to talk on cellphones. Urie said he focused only on texting because statistics tying that practice to accidents are easy to find while those for general cellphone use aren’t.
According to AAA Arizona, drivers who text are 23 percent more likely to crash and drivers who take their eyes off the road double their risk of crashing.
“Cellphones are one of the main distractions on the road, and it creates a hazard for everyone,” said Stephanie Dembowski, a spokeswoman for the group.
Despite the NTSB’s broader recommendation, AAA Arizona is focused this year on a state law against texting while driving, she said.
“We’re really pleased with the momentum,” Dembowski said. “We’re really pleased that lawmakers are taking this issue seriously, and we are really supporting it.”
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, no state bans all cellphone use by drivers, though nine states, including California, along with the District of Columbia require hands-free devices.
Arizona is one of 19 states, along with the District of Columbia, that bar school bus drivers from using cellphones when they have passengers aboard.
Another bill involving cellphone use would ban those with learner’s permits and minors who have had their licenses for six months or less from using cellphones for any purpose while driving. SB 1056, authored by Sen. John McComish, R-Ahwatukee, won committee approval and was awaiting action by the full Senate.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.
Despite optimism among proponents following the NTSB recommendation, Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he’d be surprised if any restriction on cellphone use becomes law here. He called education, rather than bans, the most effective way to prevent drivers from using cellphones in unsafe ways.
“We need to educate people not to drive and if they use a cellphone,” he said. “Get on the side of the road.”
But Farley said state laws against dangerous uses of cellphones by drivers would have a psychological effect.
“I would say the most important thing is to strengthen the thought in everyone’s head that tells them what to do and what not to do,” he said. “That thought is strengthened when there is a law on the books.”