Arizona’s cell phone industry was shaken up by Phoenix’s new law banning texting while driving and is crafting its own state law that could override local ordinances.
One state legislator called the industry’s proposal “completely disingenuous.”
Susan Bitter Smith, lobbyist for the Arizona Competitive Telecommunications Association, said the new Phoenix law unfairly targets cell phone texting by motorists as a cause of accidents. That ordinance, which took effect this week, provides fines up to $100 for drivers who send or receive text messages on cell phones and other handheld devices while their vehicle is moving.
The penalty is $250 if there is an accident.
The move came over the objections of the cellular industry, which earlier this year beat back a similar proposal by Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, for a statewide ban on texting while driving.
Bitter Smith said attorneys are researching whether cities have the legal right to impose their own texting laws.
But Bitter Smith said a simpler way to resolve the issue is a statewide law, one that covers all issues of distracted driving. She said that could include not just texting but other activities that can be dangerous, ranging from eating while behind the wheel to turning around to yell at the kids in the back seat.
Farley said Bitter Smith’s legislation is a sham.
“She wants to put everything and the kitchen sink into it,” he said.
“She’s gambling that people will be very upset by something that will not allow them to eat or put makeup on while they’re driving,” Farley continued. “That would not have any support and the whole thing would die.”
Bitter Smith, however, insists she is serious about getting a law passed. But she acknowledged she wants a bill that’s about more than driving while texting or driving while making a call on a cell phone.
“There are a multitude of behaviors that you should not be doing while driving,” she said. “They range anywhere from potentially texting to smoking a cigarette, whatever.”
Farley conceded other activities of motorists can cause accidents but is limiting his measure for political reasons.
“We have to draw a line somewhere where we are able to get the law done,” he said. “And frankly, I don’t think the people of Arizona are ready for a law that forbids them to turn around and talk to their kids while driving or putting their makeup on.”
An all-encompassing bill to ban distractions while driving could have advantages for the cell phone industry.
First, by listing what activities are “distractions,” it effectively states that others are not. So even if texting is on that list, it might not include the regular use of cell phones by drivers, a measure Bitter Smith has beaten back repeatedly at the Capitol since 1999.
In addition, Bitter Smith said she wants any such law to allow only “secondary enforcement,” meaning police could issue a citation only if a motorist were first stopped for another violation.
Arizona law already makes reckless driving a criminal offense, punishable by up to four months in jail and a $750 fine. That offense is defined as operating a motor vehicle “in reckless disregard for the safety of persons or property.”
But Bitter Smith and Farley agree on one point: That law is hard for police to enforce preemptively, with officers often writing citations only after an accident occurs. A measure on distracted driving — or even just texting — would permit ticketing for activities that could result in a mishap.