The tragic death of a police officer struck by a texting driver on the Loop 101 last week might finally convince the Arizona legislature to pass a statewide distracted driving law.
Two legislators – Scottsdale Sen. John Kavanagh and Phoenix Sen. Kate Brophy McGee – are both sponsoring legislation that would make it illegal for motorists on all Arizona roads to send or receive text messages.
McGee said the Jan. 8 death of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Tribal Officer Clayton Townsend near the McDowell Road exit may serve as the “tipping point’’ to get a hands-free law approved. The following day in Queen Creek, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy was struck and injured by a texting motorist.
If Kavanagh and Brophy McGee convince the State Legislature to finally end its resistance to a hands-free law, Gov. Doug Ducey already said he’s prepared to sign it – ending a patchwork of laws already in existence in Tempe and 16 other cities and counties around the state.
Kavanagh, who will be sworn in as a representative for District 23 on Monday, Jan. 14, said he plans to reintroduce a bill that he sponsored in 2017 and that never even got a hearing.
“You get to the point where you want the state to set policy,’’ Brophy McGee said. “There have been so many high-profile tragedies. People are fed up, they’re done.’’
Kavanagh said his bill received opposition from members of both parties.
“Basically you had some libertarian-minded Republicans who believed the existing laws against distracted driving already covered that kind of behavior,” he said.
Kavanagh said that some Democrats also opposed the bill because they thought texting while driving is so common that a ban could be used by police officers as a pretext to pull over minority drivers.
Various attempts to pass a distracted driving bill have failed for 12 consecutive years in the State Legislature, while individual cities and counties have passed regulations of their own.
A variety of local and state law enforcement agents and traffic experts said this pattern has left a crazy-quilt of laws that can’t help but confuse drivers as they travel from one city or county to another.
Scottsdale does not ban texting while driving.
“Police Officers can only cite distracted drivers for the observed infractions that they commit while driving,” Scottsdale Police spokesman Sgt. Ben Hoster said, citing examples like failure to stop, failure to stay in one lane, improper turning movements or speeding.
Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said the City Council considered a texting while driving ban four or five years ago but ultimately decided against it for a variety of reasons.
“We have considered it and chosen not to do it because of a lack of ability to enforce it,” Lane said.
He added, “On the enforcement side, we found at the time that in communities that have an ordinance there is no enforcement of it.”
Phoenix illustrates Lane’s observation.
Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson said, “It is challenging to enforce due to the wording of the ordinance. It is only illegal to use your phone to specifically ‘send or receive a written message while the motor vehicle is in motion.’ All other distracting uses of a phone while driving are not covered by the ordinance.
“Cases have been lost because the violator will come to court stating they were just checking for a missed call, using navigation, checking a Facebook posting,” he added, reporting that only 27 citations were issued in 2017.
Lane also said that he would not like to see an environment where there is a tangle of different regulations in every city and town that have different rules and penalties.
“One thing we have tried to stay away from is creating an environment where every city has different laws,” Lane said. “On something like this, which is at the very least regional in its application, it is difficult to say let’s have 91 different ordinances.”
Lane said he would be open to hearing arguments in favor of a statewide ban as long as there is a commitment to enforcement.
Still, Lane said in the meantime he would like to see some consequences for drivers that cause an incident while texting.
“I hope the insurance company would step in and if there is any indication of texting and driving there may be consequential effects to premiums or coverage,” he said.
Meanwhile, victims like Townsend continue to suffer preventable deaths and injuries that could have been avoided if a driver simply would have put down their phone and concentrate on the complex mental task of operating a motor vehicle safely.
Townsend, the father of a 10-month-old son, never had a chance, according to a state Department of Public Safety press release, reporting: “A witness told detectives that the driver of the black passenger car was looking down at his phone just before crossing over two traffic lanes and then striking the officer.’’
The DPS said that driver Jerry Sanstead, 40, of Scottsdale, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and endangerment.
Before Sanstead was released on a $100,000 bail, the prosecutor told the court there were no skid marks leading to the officer’s vehicle.
“We should make a definitive statement right now that this is phenomenally dangerous,’’ said former Sen. Steve Farley, who was rebuffed repeatedly when he sponsored a variety of distracted driving laws during his career in the legislature.
“This is not an R vs. D thing,’’ said Farley, a Tucson Democrat who lost in the Democratic primary in his bid for governor and is now running for mayor. “This is a non-partisan thing to keep the roads safe.’’
Farley and others concerned about distracted driving were sickened – but not surprised – by Townsend’s death, saying that an officer’s death is bound to get more attention, but that every day people with far lower profiles are injured in texting-related crashes.
“I would ask them, how many more people have to die’’ before a state distracted driving law gets passed, Farley said.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he always has supported measures to deter distracted driving, even though speeding, reckless driving and impaired driving are statistically more responsible for causing fatalities.
“I’ve been pushing for a long time about distracted driving,’’ Gutier said. “I became convinced years ago, that I wish we had an ordinance.’’
Brendan Lyons, executive director of Look Save a Life in Tucson, said the patchwork of 17 municipal and county bans vary.
“It’s heart-wrenching because it could have been prevented,’’ Lyons said about Townsend’s death. “We had an opportunity the last time an officer was killed.’’
He was referring to the death of DPS Officer Tim Huffman, who was killed in 2013 when he was struck on a freeway near Yuma by the driver of an empty fuel tanker who was staring at pornography on Facebook. Townsend’s family subsequently testified for a distracted driving law, but the bill still failed.
“Because of the state’s failure to act, this is why I encourage local jurisdictions to act,’’ Lyons said.
While texting behind the wheel is extraordinarily dangerous, it is not the only act with an electronic device that distracts the attention of drivers, said Tempe Sgt. Steve Carbajal, who has devoted most of his 21-year career to traffic enforcement.
“I really feel that distracted driving is the new impaired driving, if not worse,’’ Carbajal said. “You don’t have to be 21 to own a cell phone and be distracted.’’
He said a driver going 40 mph who takes his or her eyes off the road for five seconds covers about the length of a football field without looking at the road.
Carbajal said Tempe police are always trying to educate people about the ordinance, especially the large number of visitors who live in other cities, but work in Tempe, attend Arizona State University, or come to Tempe for special event.
Tempe’s slogan is “don’t text and drive, it can wait,’’ he said. “If it’s that important, pull over.’’
Carbajal said it can be difficult for an officer to distinguish between the driving behavior of an impaired driver and a distracted driver, with the same symptoms present for both.
“It’s socially OK to get in a car with someone who is texting and driving and not OK to get in a car with someone who is drinking and driving. It’s the same thing,’’ Carbajal said.
He said motorcycle officers will notice 85 to 90 percent of drivers doing something with their cell phones while stopped at red lights. He said the most common excuse he hears from drivers is that they were doing something related to the music playing in their car, such as changing a song on their phone.
All of these excuses are trifling when compared with the responsibility to operate a four-ton motor vehicle safely, not only for your own safety but for the safety of others, Carbajal said.
“I guess the emotion that comes to mind is sadness,’’ he said, when asked how he reacted to Townsend’s death. “I’ve told so many people their loved ones have died in a crash.’’