by John de Dios
Written by Alec Nielson/ArizonaNewsService.com
PHOENIX—After some false starts—and a recent near-death experience—a ban on texting behind the wheel faces one final hurdle in the Arizona Legislature.
If the legislation passes and Gov. Jan Brewer signs it, Arizona will join 20 states and the District of Columbia in barring drivers from sending a text message, peeking at an e-mail or updating their Facebook status on the move. Some cities, including Phoenix, also ban texting while driving.
But few places have had such a tough time getting a ban passed, and the Arizona House is a considerable obstacle.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, one of the main sponsors of the legislation, said the public supports it but the outcome in the House remains uncertain.
Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, the other main sponsor, agrees.
"The road will be difficult in the House, no doubt, but I remain optimistic that common sense will win out in the end," Farley said.
The legislation prohibits writing, sending or reading messages on a cell phone or personal digital assistant while operating a vehicle, including while stopped at traffic lights. Errant drivers would face a $50 civil fine and a non-moving traffic violation. The fine jumps to $200 if the texter is involved in an accident.
The full Senate passed the bill March 22, on a 19-10 vote. Earlier this month, senators killed the legislation, but Melvin managed the unusual feat of resurrecting it a few days later after lining up missing lawmakers to push it over the top.
Nothing is for sure, though, since when it comes to texting and driving, Arizona has been known to take the road less traveled. In addition to this year's stumbles, similar legislation has not gained traction for three years running.
In 2007, Farley introduced what he said was the first ban on texting while driving in the country, but the legislation was repeatedly blocked—until now.
This session, Farley and Melvin have worked together to build a bipartisan coalition in support of the bill. Farley said cell phone companies, AAA, insurance companies, motorcycle groups and victims' families are lobbying for the bill. Melvin said several major law enforcement agencies, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, also support the legislation.
While texting bans have sailed through in some other states, Arizona does have some company in resisting the proposal. According to Anne Teigen, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar legislation died in South Dakota this year.
Under Arizona's proposal, police officers would be able to pull over someone who is texting and driving but couldn't seize phones to check for sent messages, Farley said. Officers would be able to examine phones during accident investigations, Farley said.
The proposal does not prohibit making phone calls while driving and provides an exemption for emergency vehicles and law enforcement equipment. The Senate also added an amendment exempting drivers who have pulled off the road.
The bill would go into effect in 2011, with a one-month buffer period when police would just issue warnings to offenders.
Classifying texting while driving as a non-moving violation puts the offense in the same category as things like parking illegally, leaving a vehicle while it's running and not having a license plate.
Non-moving violations do not add points to a driver's record.
The relatively light penalties have drawn the ire of some lawmakers.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said texting while driving is already illegal under reckless driving statutes. Reckless driving is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to four months in jail and a $750 fine.
"The public does not realize that this can be cited under reckless driving," Gould said during the Senate debate.
Other opponents think the bill is too invasive. Charles Heller, director of media relations for Arizona Citizens Defense League, called the proposal "antithetical to freedom."
"You're supposed to be free unless you hurt someone or damage their property," said Heller, who is also one of the four founders of the organization, as well as its secretary.
He said the group would support an increased penalty for a driver who caused an accident while texting.
"We have no problem against a safer society, we just don't want to sacrifice freedom to get there," Heller said.
Melvin said he doesn't buy that argument.
"I often say some people think they have a personal right to wrap their car around a telephone pole while texting," Melvin said. "They may feel that, but they don't have any right to run into our car."
"I'm convinced this will save lives," Melvin said.
There's evidence that Melvin might be right.
A study conducted by psychologists at the University of Utah showed people who text while they drive are six times more likely to crash than those who don't text and drive, according to a December news release from the university.
But Heller isn't sure this proposal will convince people to stop texting and driving.
"You've got someone who's too foolish not to text while driving, and you think they're going to stop because it's against the law?" he asked.
The legislation is S.B. 1334.
Alec Nielson is the Bolles Fellow for the University of Arizona's School of Journalism.
For more news from the Arizona News Service, visit http://arizonanewsservice.com