By Jim Walsh and Cecilia Chan, GSN Staff
Gilbert may join Mesa and Chandler in developing a regional ban on motorists’ use of handheld devices while driving if the legislature fails to pass a statewide prohibition.
Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke and Mesa Mayor John Giles two weeks ago told the Gilbert Sun News that they may reluctantly consider ordinances for their respective cities and pursue a regional ban on texting and driving such as one already in force in the Tucson area.
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels last week agreed a regional ban may be necessary.
“Unfortunately, lives have been lost and it’s terrible and should not have happened,” said Daniels, adding that she is open to a concerted effort with her peers if state lawmakers don’t act.
“But I do really believe a statewide solution would be the best solution,” she added. “I don’t think we would do our own ordinance without a regional effect. We have such close proximity between our communities.”
Gilbert Vice Mayor Eddie Cook said when each community adopts its own ordinance on the same issue, there are always some differences, making it hard for drivers to keep track of what rules are in place as they drive through the East Valley.
“That becomes a nightmare,” Cook said. “It’s better if the state were to do it globally across the state.”
Failing that, if all the mayors can create a uniform standard, it “would have a stronger opportunity of being successful versus just one or two municipalities doing this,” he said.
Gilbert Councilmen Scott Anderson and Jared Taylor also favored a regional solution in the absence of a state ban.
“I believe that we need to think the issue through before we enact bans on anything,” Anderson said. “Distracted driving is a very serious issue, but it is more than texting and driving. We need to be researching and discussing all aspects of distracted driving before implementing anything that could have many unintended consequences.”
Added Taylor, “Keeping our roads safe is a high priority, and a regional approach makes sense for consistency. With good data, I am sure a reasonable solution can come forward to help improve safety.”
For now, Arizona, Montana and Missouri are the last hold-outs in the country when it comes to banning adult drivers from texting.
But this may change as Hartke and Giles were buoyed by the passage two weeks ago of Phoenix Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee’s bill, which would require motorists resort to Bluetooth or other hands-free methods when using a cell phone.
SB 1165 passed out of the state Senate on a 20-10 vote.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert joined fellow East Valley Republican Senators J.D. Mesnard of Chandler and David Farnsworth of Mesa in voting against the Brophy McGee bill.
Last Monday, the Senate passed Mesnard’s bill that would impose a broader ban on distracted driving.
Both Mesnard’s and Brophy McGee’s bills now go to the state House, where Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, also introduced a measure, HB 2069, that would ban texting while driving.
This year’s bills come on the heels of the recent death of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Tribal Police Officer Clayton Townsend, who was killed by a texting motorist on Loop 101.
“I’m a big supporter of Kate Brophy McGee’s bill,’’ Hartke said. “I’m a big supporter of this being a regional solution. If, for some reason, the governor doesn’t sign it, we would at least look at it.”
Gov. Doug Ducey said he would sign a ban.
Daniels said she’s heard this year’s bills on the issue have more traction than with similar measures in previous years.
Daniels said distracted driving was a problem everywhere, even in Gilbert.
“Our crashes are up, our fatalities are up,” she said.
Hartke said continuing to do nothing statewide is unacceptable because of the injuries and deaths caused by distracted drivers.
But if the legislature continues with the more than decade-long trend of doing nothing about it, Hartke said he would support reaching out to Mesa, Tempe and other East Valley municipalities to craft a regional approach to combat the problem.
“Driving needs your attention,’’ Hartke said. “We have a whole generation coming into driving that is so used to the cell phone as a part of life. It is artificial to them to not look at a cell phone.”
Gilbert’s vice mayor said requiring people to use some sort of hands-free technology for texting and verbal communication would be acceptable but not preferred for him.
“I look forward to the day I can get into an autonomous car and do all the stuff I need to while this drives me automatically,” Cook said, adding:
“For me in my job, I have lots and lots of conference calls and lot of times I wished I could have my lap top up and running with my conference calls. An autonomous car would be the perfect solution for me.”
Whatever the method, Giles said a statewide law would avoid confusion and promote public safety.
“The state of Arizona needs to lead on. If they don’t, you will see local ordinances,’’ Giles said. “I think there is grassroots, public support for addressing the problem of texting while driving.”
Giles was right. An overwhelming 96 percent of eligible voters, across all party lines, supported cracking down on texting while driving, according to a statewide poll released in February by HighGround, a public affairs firm in Phoenix.
The poll also found that a large majority of Arizona voters believed Brophy McGee’s “hands-free” proposal was a worthy solution to combat the problem.
Giles compared today’s controversy over distracted driving with the movement in the 1990s to ban smoking inside restaurants, bars and other public places.
He said various cities, including Mesa, passed smoking laws of their own, which created confusion that was only eliminated by the creation of a state law.
That measure was enacted, however, by a voter-approved initiative in 2006, not by the legislature.
Mesnard said he was against texting bans, and his bill does not mention cell phones specifically but would allow police to issue citations if they note any sort of distraction – from eating a cheeseburger, to applying makeup, to the driver taking his or her eyes off the road to yell at misbehaving children in the backseat.
Under Brophy McGee’s bill, police would first issue warnings in 2020 and then civil citations in 2021.
But cities like Tempe aren’t waiting. The City Council recently toughened a hands-free driving law to a primary offense. The ordinance was initially passed in 2015.
As of April, Tempe police can stop someone for holding a cell phone while driving. Previously, they could only stop a motorist if he or she had committed another traffic violation.
The piecemeal approach that Giles and Hartke say must end, already exists throughout Arizona.
Brendan Lyons, executive director of Look! Save a Life in Tucson, said 26 cities, towns and counties in Arizona have some sort of distracted-driving law, with 23 enforcing hands-free driving and the remainder banning texting.
“What you’re telling me about Chandler and Mesa is a very consistent message. Everyone is saying it’s time to act,” Lyons said.
Lyons, a former firefighter, was nearly killed in 2013 when he was struck by a distracted driver. The collision forced him from his career but launched him on a mission to get as many local distracted-driving laws passed as possible after one texting bill after another died in the State Legislature.
“Because I’m alive, because I have a voice, it is my duty to speak up for those who do not have a voice,” Lyons said.
If Ducey does sign something into law, Tempe and other Arizona communities can continue to enforce their local distracted-driving ordinances until the state law takes effect in January 2021.
“I think it’s great. It’s something that is long overdue in my opinion,’’ said Tempe police Sgt. Steve Carbajal, who has devoted most of his 21-year career to traffic enforcement. “How many lives must be lost until we do something?”
Carbajal and his traffic officers will start looking for people who are holding their cell phones while driving, and will stop and cite them.
“I think they definitely will be looking for it. It’s a step to make our streets safer,” Carbajal said. “Tempe is not afraid to be the trailblazer. Kudos to our City Council for recognizing the dangers and making it a priority.”
He said the ultimate goal, however, is to change widespread driver behavior, rather than writing a bunch of tickets.
“I think anything that takes your attention away from the driving task is dangerous. The question is where do you draw the line,” Carbajal said. “Put the cell phone down and focus on the driving task.”
Marc Lamber, a Phoenix personal injury attorney, said he has noticed a proliferation of injuries and deaths in his practice related to distracted driving. It prompted Lamber to establish a web page listing national statistics on these types of collisions.
“The bottom line is texting while driving, using the phone and driving, is bad news,” Lamber said. “My advice is keep it simple, don’t use it, period.”
Lamber considered texting and talking into a cell phone, holding it while driving, as creating the maximum risk. He echoed comments made by Carbajal previously that even speaking wirelessly, without handling the phone, creates a level of distraction.
Lamber applauded Brophy McGee’s bill, saying a combination of education, legislation and enforcement is needed.
“We all need to be prepared for and contemplate the unexpected,” Lamber said.
At least two Arizona officers, Department of Public Safety Trooper Tim Huffman and Townsend, were killed in roadside collisions caused by distracted driving.
Huffman died in May 2013 on Interstate 8 near Yuma when a truck driver, watching pornography on his cell phone, ran him down. The truck driver later was convicted of negligent homicide.
Townsend had stopped a car on the Loop 101 in January, near the McDowell Road exit, when he was struck by a vehicle that veered across two lanes of traffic. The driver admitted to police he had been texting and was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.
Former state Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, tried for 12 years to pass bans on texting while driving but was blocked by former state Sen. Andy Biggs, now a congressman, and others who said a texting ban was unenforceable and unnecessary.
“I believe there is a legitimate, dangerous issue with distracted driving,” Mesnard said. “The issue should not be focused as much on the means as by the end.”
He said more people are better at multi-tasking than others, and that if his bill is passed, “there’s a little bit of a judgment call” by police on whether someone involved in a collision was distracted.
That’s one reason why Spring Bemis, a cousin of Townsend’s, supports Brophy McGee’s approach. She said it’s crystal clear and sets standards for safe driving and for the police to attack distracted driving.
“Keep it black and white,” she said. “Let’s end it now.”
Bemis, noting that Townsend’s son just turned 1 year old without his father, added: “Our family does not want any more people to suffer and feel the pain.”