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AAA Arizona urges lawmakers to focus on distracted driving

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PHOENIX – Pointing to an advocacy group’s report listing Arizona among states falling behind in addressing distracted driving, rules for novice drivers and protecting occupants of vehicles, AAA Arizona is calling on state lawmakers to strengthen traffic-safety laws.

“We’re puzzled as to why lawmakers aren’t making this more of a priority this session,” said Linda Gorman, communications and public affairs director for AAA Arizona.

A start, AAA Arizona contends, would be addressing distracted driving by novice drivers, but an effort to do that faces an uncertain fate this legislative session. Bills to ban texting while driving have gone nowhere.

The group noted that the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety’s Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws lists Arizona as “dangerously behind” in its laws on distracted driving, promoting safe driving by novice drivers and protecting those in vehicles.

The report faults Arizona for not banning texting while driving, not making lack of seat belts use a primary offense and not requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. For drivers with graduated driver’s licenses, the report calls for restricting cellphone use and a minimum age of 16 for a learner’s permit.

Arizona currently bans all cellphone use for school bus drivers but doesn’t have any other restrictions on the use of mobile devices.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 41 states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging while driving. Twelve states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced a bill that would prohibit novice drivers, those with graduated licenses, from using cellphones except in emergencies. It won House approval but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.

Fann’s committee later revived the legislation as a strike-everything amendment to a Senate bill. That measure has won preliminary approval from the House, setting up a final vote that would forward it to the full Senate.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who introduced a bill this session to ban texting while driving, said political ideology doesn’t matter when someone is harmed by a distracted driver.

“We know the rest of the country has been doing this,” he said. “Red, states, blue states, all states.”

However, Farley said he was pleased by a recent announcement that the Arizona Department of Public Safety will use existing laws to cite and warn distracted drivers.

Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said text messaging while driving is a horrendous practice but that enforcing a ban would be difficult. He said the legislation on distracted driving by novice drivers would have been the ideal bill to pass this session.

“I thought it was a good beginning,” he said.

Gorman said she remains optimistic that a bill addressing the use of cellphones while driving will advance this session.

“These modest improvements are definitely worth the lifesaving benefits,” she said.