Lawmakers back off on teen-texting and driving law

PHOENIX -- It looks like the state's newest drivers will continue to be able to tap away at and chat on their cell phones.

Rep. Phil Lovas, R-Peoria, who chairs the House Rules Committee confirmed Wednesday he is refusing to give a hearing to a Senate-passed bill that would make the use of hand-held communication devices illegal for teens during the first six months they have a license.

Lovas told Capitol Media Services he is "personally ambivalent'' about making the practice illegal. Instead, Lovas said he is reflecting the views of some other legislators.

"I've heard from other members,'' he said.

"The concern is this is the camel's nose under the tent when it comes to texting and driving,'' Lovas explained: Once Arizona enacts its first-ever restrictions, no matter how minimal, it potentially becomes easier to expand the law so that more people are barred from driving while texting.

He did not name names.

Anyway, Lovas said his refusal to act on the bill which has been ready for action for more than a month does not necessarily mean it's dead.

But it is in a coma?

"I think that's fair to say,'' he responded.

Lovas' refusal to advance the bill annoyed Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who shepherded SB 1080 through the Senate on a 24-6 margin. The bill also was approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure by a 7-1 vote.

She pointed out that the Rules Committee, unlike other panels, is not supposed to debate the policy merits of a measure.

Instead, Fann said, the only issue for that committee to decide is whether a measure is constitutional and in proper form for consideration by the full House. And she said none of the issues Lovas appears to have with the bill fit either category.

The problem, though, is that all measures must go through the Rules Committee before going to the House floor. And that gives Lovas the unilateral power to quash anything he does not like.

Fann said if Lovas has concerns, there's an easy way for him to express those.

"If he wants to vote 'no' on it, either in committee or on the floor, that's certainly his prerogative,'' she said.

And what of setting a precedent -- that "camel's nose under the tent''?

"I certainly can't speak for any of my other colleagues,'' Fann said. "But I certainly will give you my assurance that I do not intend on running any no-texting bills for statewide or adults.''

What is in SB 1080 is minimal.

It would impose the ban on talking and texting to only those with a Class G license -- the first license available to teens -- for the first six months they on the road.

And it makes the violation a "secondary offense.''

That means police officers cannot stop a teens solely because they see the driver with a cell phone. Instead, a citation could be issued only if the motorist is stopped for some other reason.

Fann pointed out there already are restrictions on Class G drivers, ranging from having no more than one unrelated teen in the vehicle to a ban on driving between midnight and 5 a.m. without a parent present unless it's for something like going to work.

"We're just adding one that will help protect and save our kids' lives, hopefully, because they will learn good driving habits, which is what Class G licenses are all about,'' she said.

Fann said it's "about the simplest'' thing the legislature could do.

"It's funny because this is one of those bills that I actually have a couple of people that vote 'no' because they want it to go further,'' she said.

The Insurance Institute for Highways Safety says 37 states and the District of Columbia restrict the use of cellphone by "novice drivers,'' with 14 of those states and D.C. making it illegal for anyone to talk on a hand-held cellphone.

IIHS also reports that text messaging is banned for an drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia, with two other states banning texting by new motorists.

Despite the reluctance of Arizona lawmakers to act, several communities have enacted the own driving-while-texting bans, including Tucson and Phoenix and Pima County.


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