By Matt Roy, Philip Haldiman & Jason Stone, Independent Newsmedia
Though the state’s new anti-texting ordinance won’t be “real” for another 19 months, state troopers and local police are already warning drivers on Arizona’s roads.
Bart Graves, a spokesman for the Department of Public safety said his agency had issued 1,450 warnings to drivers between April 22 and June 6.
Troopers will continue issuing warnings until January 2021 when the law takes full effect, he said.
“This period until we can start citing people is an education period to educate motorists about the dangers of distracted driving, the dangers of not putting your full concentration and attention to the road and to your driving,” Mr. Graves said.
While on patrol, troopers watch for drivers talking or texting on their phones or otherwise not paying full attention to the road.
“When our troopers witness someone that’s making poor lane choices, for instance, on the freeway impacting the safety of others, maybe speeding, while talking on the phone or whatever distraction is going on in the vehicle,” Mr. Graves explained. “This will be a chance for that trooper to educate that driver with a warning and to remind that driver they can and will be cited for violating the hands-free law starting in 2021.”
He said the education period not only prepares motorists for the full implementation of the new law, but in the meantime the warnings actually serve a valuable purpose, since many drivers will remember those interactions and begin to change their behaviors as a result, he suggested.
“These ‘teachable moments’ tend to stay with motorists,” Mr. Graves said. “The driver remembers when they go through that area again why they were stopped and they tend to change their driving behavior and that’s what this is all about.”
In enforcing the new statewide law, DPS troopers will only cite motorists who break the rules on state roads, such as on interstate freeways.
But on surface streets, drivers are only subject to municipal ordinances until the state law supersedes local laws.
Until then, some cities will continue enforcing their own laws while others have enacted their own new measures in the meantime.
While the state may have approved the hands-free measure, city of Peoria officials went ahead and approved their own ordinance, which the City Council approved June 4.
“The purpose of enacting the city ordinance is to promote public awareness, initiate a local education campaign, show support for the state law and put a city ordinance in place, which authorizes enforcement under both city and state law,” said City Attorney Vanessa Hickman.
Similar to the state law, the new ordinance will prohibit the use of a portable wireless communication devices or stand-alone electronic device while driving a car.
Ms. Hickman said this includes text messaging, emailing and watching videos.
This also means drivers cannot physically hold or support the device with any part of their body, except by using an earpiece, headphone, or device worn on a wrist to make a phone call.
The new ordinance does not apply to the use of voice-based communications through virtual assistants for text messaging or the use of hands-free features, such as Siri or Google Assist.
It also does not apply if the driver is reporting an emergency, safety hazard or criminal activity and the ordinance is a primary offense, which means an officer can perform a traffic stop if the behavior is observed.
Ms. Hickman said there is a warning period before the ordinance goes into effect that runs through Dec. 31, 2020. Citations can be issued beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
She said fines range from $75 to $149 for the first offense and $150 to $250 for the second and subsequent offenses. If there is serious injury or death, it is a class 1 misdemeanor, a presumptive six-month jail sentence and up to $2,500 fine.
“Enforcement and fines are consistent with state law,” Ms. Hickman said. “So there is a lengthy warning period to get everybody familiar with the ordinance and the state law, and to get everyone up to speed with a period of education before citations can be issued.”
Drivers who use portable communication devices to send text messages while operating a motor vehicle are statistically more likely to become involved in a traffic accident, contributing to the increase of injuries, deaths, property damage, healthcare costs and auto insurance rates, according to a city report.
Mayor Cathy Carlat said that while the ordinance will not go into effect for another year, staff will most likely begin formulating an educational program as quickly as possible.
“I feel that this is a critical safety factor and the law needed to be enacted quickly,” Ms. Carlat said. “We moved forward with getting our ordinance in place so we can begin to educate drivers. We are ready to raise the bar on safe driving.”
A future study session will held to discuss such things, but has not yet been scheduled.
“There will be a discussion about a communication plan for making sure our residents are fully aware of the implications of this, providing some of the statistics as to why this is so important, and then making sure they know exactly why we are enforcing this,” City Manager Jeff Tyne said.
The Surprise City Council last month voted to retain the language of its own hands-free ordinance, which it passed in August 2018 until it’s forced to adopt the Arizona standard in 2021.
On a 4-3 vote, the council rejected amending the city’s language to mirror the HB2318, which the Arizona Legislature passed on May 21.
The main difference between the city code and the state law is the provision for enforcement at red lights and railroad crossings. The city prohibits it, but the state doesn’t.
“I may have a bias, but I like ours better,” said Surprise Vice Mayor Roland Winters. “That deal of not stopping at the red light is a bunch of baloney.”
District 3 Councilman Patrick Duffy, who serves southwest Surprise, agreed.
“The thing I don’t like about texting at a red light is now you got people who won’t pay attention and won’t move even when it turns green until their conversation is over,” Mr. Duffy said. “I’m not a huge fan of any of that. I like the way ours is written. I don’t want to change it until we absolutely have to.”
Surprise Police Chief Terry Young also showed his preference when detailing the differences between the city code and the state law for the Council.
“In all transparency I like our ordinance better,” Mr. Young said. “I like the fact that we say you don’t use it while sitting at a red light, and I like the fact that you don’t even use it at a railroad crossing. You keep the thing out of your hand while you’re on the roadway.”
The state law took effect immediately after its passage, but enforcement won’t start until Jan. 1, 2021. Had the Surprise council voted to adopt the state’s language now, however, it would have been allowed to continue to enforce the ban before the statewide ban is enforced.
Penalties call for fines between $75 and $149 for a first violation, and between $150 and $250 for a second and subsequent violations.
Both the city code and the state law have the same exemptions.
They both allow cell phone use for all hands-free activities or while parked on the side of the road, to report illegal activity or to call for emergency assistance.
“If you’re engaged in a conversation or conducting a text verbally through a hands-free method, that would be an exemption to the law,” Mr. Young said.
District 6 Councilman Chris Judd was one of the three who voted to go to the state law language, along with councilmen Ken Remley of District 4 and David Sanders of District 5.
“I would like to see us pair up with how the state ordinance is written as soon as possible to make it easier for residents,” Mr. Judd said. “Really the point of the ordinance is to make it safer out there, not so much to manage what people are doing in their cars.
“You might be a bonehead by not going when the light turns green, but you’re not creating a safety hazard.”
Mr. Young said it may be a moot point with the red-light language included anyway because authorities are having trouble enforcing it.
“The vast majority we come into contact with are motoring down the road,” Mr. Young said. “It’s much more difficult to enforce this at a red light because motorists are more aware of what’s going on around them. They know when a police officer is there, and they’re not bringing , so that we’re seeing them do that. That’s rare for that to occur.”
Mayor Skip Hall, who said he was in favor the city language because of the red-light enforcement, said he hoped maybe Surprise would possibly send a message to state lawmakers to make toughen up its law before enforcing it.
“How do we know that we’re not going to have some influence on legislators to amend their language?” Mr. Hall asked out loud before the council took its vote.
Mr. Young told the council they could change its mind about adopting the state law any time before being forced to take it.