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Arizona House Is Debating 2 Different Distracted Driving Bills: Here's How They Differ

The Arizona House of Representatives is set to debate two bills aimed at improving the safety of Arizona roads. One would ban handling a cellphone behind the wheel of a moving car. Another would criminalize any activity that distracts a driver from the road.

Regulating Cellphone Use

Senate Bill 1165 would make it illegal for motorists to have a mobile device like a cellphone or tablet in-hand while their car is in motion. It would apply to making phone calls, sending messages, taking photos and streaming videos.

In March, the state Senate approved the measure on a 20-10 vote.

Regulating All Distractions

The broader bill, Senate Bill 1141, would create the offense of "distracted driving,'' allowing police to stop and ticket a motorist who was doing something unrelated to driving if it creates an "immediate hazard'' or the person does not exercise "reasonable control'' of the vehicle.

It passed the state Senate on a 16-13 vote exactly a week after the chamber passed SB1165, the texting-while-driving bill.

“There are a myriad of ways you can be distracted. Certainly your phone is one,” said state Sen. J.D. Mesnard. “But we go after the issue of whether or not you are a danger on the road, evidenced by how you are driving."

Mesnard said he sponsored the bill because any distraction can be dangerous – from putting on makeup, talking to someone in the backseat or eating while behind the wheel.

However, other lawmakers feel the language of the bill is too broad.

What Counts As A Distraction?

"We already have laws on the books dealing with reckless driving, driving erratically, driving in a manner that's not safe,'' said Rep. Noel Campbell. "What does this give us that we don't already have?''

“Having your dog in your lap and then you swerve to avoid a pothole,'' said Rep. Richard Andrade. "You could be pulled over for distracted driving for the simple fact you have a dog in your lap.''

And Andrade said that, the way the measure is written, it wouldn't even require that the vehicle is in motion. Consider, he said, a situation where the baby in the back seat drops the bottle and the driver, while at a light, reaches back to pick it up.

"That could be distracted driving because, once you get going, you delayed traffic for a few seconds,'' Andrade said.

Rep. Leo Biasiucci questioned the breadth of the phrase "immediate hazard," which is one of the triggers for police to be able to pull someone over.

"If they see someone with a phone in their hand, they're driving the speed limit, they're not swerving, could that still be seen as an immediate hazard because the officer feels that he or she might eventually swerve and get in an accident?'' he asked. "It makes me a little nervous because it's a broad range here.''

Rep. Kevin Payne said he personally likes the fact that the proposal is broad, focusing on more than just the use of a phone or other electronic device. Rep. Bob Thorpe agreed for the need to put some constraints on people who are supposed to be controlling the vehicle.

"You're reaching for the baby bottle, you're trying to grab that doughnut, you've got that dog on your lap, and you kill somebody or you do thousands of dollars worth of damage,'' he said.

"You're job when you're behind the wheel is to keep that vehicle safe and not to harm other people,'' Thorpe said.

Since both measures have already passed the Senate, it’s up to the House to determine how far the legislature will go to regulate distracted driving.



Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.