It looks like Arizonans may have to park their cell phones and PDAs before they put the car in drive.
In a stunning reversal, the state Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a ban on texting while driving. The 17-11 vote came just two days after the same measure died on an 11-11 tie.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said the big difference is that some of those who promised to support the bill were not around two days earlier. But Melvin got no help from newly appointed Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, who just hours after being sworn in on Thursday voted against SB1334.
With 17 votes, Melvin has enough to secure final approval when the measure gets a final Senate roll-call vote next week. But he still needs to convince the House - and ultimately Gov. Jan Brewer - to go along.
Thursday's vote marks the first time the bill has gained Senate approval since it was first introduced three years ago. But the debate shows that opposition still remains.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, questioned why that particular distraction merited a special law, especially when existing laws already make reckless driving illegal.
"If you drink your Big Gulp, it's OK," he said. "If you're reaching down to get something off the floor and not looking at the road, you're OK. If you're changing the radio station, you're OK. If you're putting on makeup, you're OK."
But Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said the difference is the level of distraction.
"To me, it's no different than driving down the street and trying to read a book," she said. "Your eyes are away from the road. They're away from what you're doing."
Violators would be subject to a $50 penalty - $200 if there was an accident.
Lawmakers did agree to create an exemption for drivers: They could not be cited if they pull the vehicle over to the side of the road to type, send or receive their texts or e-mails.
But that amendment by Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley, does not cover someone trying to sneak in a quick text while stopped at a traffic light. She said drivers still need to pay attention to what is going on around them.
Less clear is enforcement.
The legislation does not affect making calls while driving. Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said there is no way police can determine if someone is sending a message or simply dialing a number short of illegally taking away the cell phone.