One of the great debates ringing throughout the country has come to the Arizona Legislature: Should motorists put down their cell phones and just drive?
A pair of Democratic lawmakers recently introduced two bills that would force motorists to do just that.
One bill specifically targets teenagers, outlawing cell phone use by drivers 18 years old and younger.
The other would prohibit all drivers, regardless of age, from using cell phones as well as other types of electronic equipment such as hand-held computers.
But with Republicans controlling the Legislature, the two Democrats could be the ones saying: Can you hear me now?
“Look, I’m a Democrat from Tucson. That’s two strikes against me,” said Rep. Tom Prezelski, D-Tucson, who sponsored HB2099, which would fine any driver who violates the law $50 to $200.
In the past the GOP-controlled Legislature has killed several bills calling for limitations on cell phone use.
Prezelski admits his prospects are not much better this year. He said he’d be shocked if Republicans allowed the bill to be heard in a committee — which is required before it goes to a vote in the Legislature.
Republican leaders also acknowledged that chances of the bills getting very far in the Legislature are slim.
Still, Prezelski said he will continue calling for changes in Arizona driving laws because something needs to be done to lower the number of statewide traffic crashes.
“The state Legislature has never taken traffic safety seriously,” he said.
Likewise, Rep. Martha Garcia, DPhoenix, said restricting teen drivers from using cell phones would reduce the number of fatal crashes in the state.
Personal experience along with a report just released by AAA calling for tighter restrictions on teen driver’s licenses prompted her to craft HB2300.
Garcia said her teenage granddaughter was in a crash last year because she was text messaging a friend at the time. Her granddaughter wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident convinced Garcia to take action.
“That really made me start to think about doing something,” she said.
Adults may think it’s a good idea to curb teen cell phone use while young drivers are behind the wheel, but teenagers at an East Valley high school aren’t so sure.
“I think it’s dumb,” said Neil Hunter, a 19-year-old senior at Mesquite High School in Gilbert. “Kids, if they are using cell phones or not, they are going to get in wrecks. I don’t think cell phones are going to change that.”
However, Laumanu Manu, a 14-yearold Mesquite sophomore, said limiting cell phone use could help teens focus more on driving. “(It’s) a good idea because people could hit something because they are too into their conversation,” she said.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said it’s unlikely the bills will ever see the inside of a hearing room. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to single out cell phones when drivers do a lot of other things in the car that are distracting.
The proposed legislation has been assigned to Biggs’ Transportation Committee, which means he can decide whether they will be heard.
“If (Prezelski’s) bill isn’t much different from previous years, I wouldn’t be inclined to hear it,” he said Thursday while driving his car and talking on a cell phone.
However, he said he would look more closely at Garcia’s proposal.
The bills have been assigned to three other committees, which lawmakers said is also a sign political death is imminent.
But politics and opinions aside, law enforcement officials say enforcing a cell phone ban would be nearly impossible.
Officer Harold Sanders, a spokesman for Arizona Department of Public Safety, said police don’t need the Legislature to step in. He said officers already have the authority to stop a motorist who is driving erratically or recklessly — whether caused by cell phones or not.
Besides cell phones, officers say they often see drivers distracted — by eating, putting on make-up or even watching television now that many vehicles come with video players.
The answer is not new legislation, said Susan Bitter Smith who represents the Arizona Competitive Telephone Coalition, whose members include some of the largest cell phone providers in the country. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to legislate this,” she said Thursday. “You can’t legislate good behavior.”