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Texting-while-driving ban may have chance in Legislature

PHOENIX — A new proposal that would ban texting while driving has emerged in the Arizona Senate, and this time the yearly effort may have a chance with the departure of former Senate President Andy Biggs and a new Republican champion.

For years, Biggs wielded his power as president to block texting bans and proposals to require the use of hands-free devices for cellphones. The Republican argued that laws against reckless driving were sufficient to address the problem.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, has put forward proposed bans for years. He said Wednesday he plans several efforts this year that have yet to be introduced.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, beat him to the punch this year, introducing the Legislature’s first bill to ban texting. It would allow the use of phones and GPS devices behind the wheel.

“I have always considered texting while driving to be extremely dangerous and just crazy,” Kavanagh said. “My bill simply outlaws texting while driving, not talking on the phone. A lot of people do that and I think there’s no real public cry to get rid of that.”

U.S. Department of Transportation research shows 46 states and Washington, D.C., ban text messaging, while 14 states and Washington, D.C., bar the use of cellphones without hands-free devices.

Arizona only bans text messaging by school bus drivers.

Kavanagh’s Senate Bill 1049 carries a $100 fine for a first offense and $300 for each subsequent ticket. Causing an accident while texting carries a $500 fine, and causing a fatal accident carries a $10,000 fine.

“If you get involved in a fatal accident because you’re texting, $10,000 is the least of your worries,” Kavanagh said. “You may be facing a manslaughter charge.”

Farley said he’s confident the Legislature will finally act this year. He plans to introduce his own bill to ban texting and another forbidding the use of cellphones without hands-free devices that aims to protect roadside workers and bicyclists and that carries steep fines for causing accidents while texting.

He said a group of advocates plan a major effort at the Capitol later this month to lobby for laws addressing distracted driving.

“I think there’s a huge amount of momentum this year to actually get this done,” Farley said.

Federal statistics show 3,179 people died and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents caused by distracted driving in 2014. Those numbers include texting and phone use plus other types of distractions, such as eating or using a navigation system.

Arizona Department of Public Safety statistics for 2015 show nearly 10 percent of the 29,400 accidents troopers investigated were caused by distracted drivers. Nearly 300 were caused by phone use or texting.

Kavanagh disagrees with those who argue reckless driving laws are enough to limit distracted driving.

“We do have some members who believe that if you’re texting or doing other distracted driving your car will weave around and you’ll be spotted by the police,” he said. “Personally I think the police will first see you when your car is plowed into the rear end of the car in front of you.”

Farley said he doesn’t care who sponsors the hands-free phone bills or a texting ban.

“That’s a bipartisan issue,” he said, “because the texting driver doesn’t care if you’re red or blue when they run into you and kill you.”