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Arizona bans cell phone use while driving

click to enlarge Law enforcement officers in Arizona will begin issuing tickets for using a cell phone while driving beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

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Law enforcement officers in Arizona will begin issuing tickets for using a cell phone while driving beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

Arizona joined 47 other states Monday, April 22 when Gov. Doug Ducey, joined by members of the Arizona Legislature, signed legislation prohibiting the use of handheld mobile devices while driving. The legislation, HB 2318, takes effect immediately, while fines and penalties don't begin until January 1, 2021. In the meantime, officers may issue warnings for violations of this law.

The new law prohibits "Holding or supporting a wireless device while driving," "Writing or reading any text-based communication while driving" and "Watching, recording, or broadcasting video while driving." The only exemptions to the law are if the driver is using a hands-free device, are stopped at a traffic light or are reporting an emergency.

"Too many lives have been lost," said Governor Ducey. "This legislation takes important, clear and common sense steps to prevent texting and driving."

Whereas many are using the phrase "texting and driving" in reference to the new legislation HB 2318 in fact bans all handheld cell phone use while driving. This is an important distinction to remember, according to Brendan Lyons, executive director of the national roadway safety nonprofit Look! Save a Life.

"A lot of people think this is a texting ban, when really it's hands-free," Lyons said. "The problem with a texting ban, is how do you know if the driver is actively sending or receiving a text message? They could be on a music app or social media. The benefit of a hands-free law is there's no question."

The penalties for distracted driving are a fine of up to $150 for the first offense, and fines of up to $250 for the second and subsequent offenses. However, if the distracted driver causes "a crash resulting in serious injury," they can be faced with six months in jail or a $2,500 fine.

"Today, Arizona takes a critical step toward making our roads safer," said Senator Kate Brophy McGee on the day of the signing. "Distracted driving is a public health crisis."

McGee introduced bill SB 1165 earlier this year in hopes of banning texting while driving. While that bill failed to pass a vote in its third House hearing, it did forge part of the path for HB 2318 to become law. This new legislation replaces 26 local ordinances across Arizona, doing away with a "patchwork" of laws. McGee stated this was also one of the major aims of her proposed bill.

Another major aspect of HB 2318 is that using a cell phone with your hands while driving is now a primary offence, meaning officers can pull over drivers explicitly for handheld cell phone use while driving. Previously, many local ordinances only listed this as a secondary offense, where a driver can receive a citation but only after already being pulled over for a primary offense.

While HB 2318 has large impacts for roadways across the entire state, it changes little in Pima County, which has implemented a hands-free cell phone law since June 1, 2017. The City of Tucson and Town of Oro Valley both already had hands-free ordinances.

While state legislators have introduced dozens of proposed hands-free cell phone laws over the past decade, all failed to pass for multiple reasons. However, according to Lyons, outlawing cell phone use while driving has been a growing trend across the state, with 16 local ordinances passing in Arizona since the beginning of 2018.

"The people of Arizona want this," said Lyons, who survived being struck by a distracted driver while riding a bike in 2013.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, over 3,000 people were killed by distracted driving in 2017, which is roughly 10 percent of all of fatal crashes in the U.S. In response, states with hands-free driving laws saw a 16 percent reduction in traffic-related fatalities.

The bill, sponsored by Republicans Noel Campbell and David Stringer, was introduced to the House on Jan. 30, just a few weeks after a texting driver struck and killed Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend.

"I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak," Lyons said. "These types of incidents happen on a daily basis."

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