A twelve-year crusade to ban texting while driving came to an end on Monday as Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation prohibiting handheld cell phone use while behind the wheel.
Surrounded by legislators, law enforcement personnel and the families of people who were killed by drivers who were texting while driving, Ducey signed House Bill 2318 at a ceremony in the Old Capitol.
The new law makes it illegal to hold a cell phone in your hands, support it on your shoulder or even keep it in your lap while driving. People will still be permitted to talk on the phone while driving, but only if they are using a hands-free function. Drivers will still be able to text or use their phones for other things while stopped at lights, stop signs and railroad crossings.
“This legislation represents an issue whose time has come,” said Ducey, who admitted to having texted while driving before he became governor. “It’s common sense, and it will save lives.”
Arizona, which already banned texting while driving only for people younger than 18, was one of the last states to implement such a ban for all drivers. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 47 states already have texting-while-driving bans on the books. The organization said only 17 states previously banned drivers from all hand-held cell phone use while behind the wheel.
In essence, Arizona goes from having some of the loosest laws about cell phone use by drivers to among the toughest.
Ducey said states that passed similar laws saw 16-percent reductions in fatalities on the road within the first two years of the laws being in effect.
HB2318 won’t go into effect immediately, or at least the penalties provision won’t. Under the bill, fines for violations of the law won’t begin until 2021. Until then, officers will be able to pull drivers over to issue warnings.
Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who championed the ban, said the new law isn’t about punishing people. It’s about getting people to rethink and change their behavior.
“When I was little, it wasn’t cool to wear seat belts. When I was in college, there was no such thing as a designated driver. All of those safety habits changed and developed. This is going to be another one. I really believe that,” Brophy McGee said after the signing ceremony.
For years, advocates pushed legislation, only to see it fall short. Some argued that Arizona’s distracted driving laws were sufficient. Others questioned the need for such a ban, saying it’s not dangerous to talk on the phone while driving. Republican legislative leaders and committee chairmen in previous sessions kept earlier proposals from getting votes.
Much of the momentum to pass HB2318 came from the family of Clayton Townsend, an officer with the Salt River tribal police who died January after a texting driver ran into him during a traffic stop. Ducey called Toni Townsend, the officer’s mother, who lobbied for a ban at the Legislature, the “MVP” in getting the long-awaited bill across the finish line.
After the signing ceremony, Toni Townsend said she’s proud that the new texting ban will be her son’s legacy.
“Clayton would be proud, too,” Townsend told reporters.