By Jon Johnson
PIMA – After months of discussion and evaluation, the Pima Town Council unanimously passed its hands-free distracted driving ordinance at its Tuesday, Dec. 4 meeting.
The ordinance goes into effect in January and makes it against Pima Town Code to use handheld telephones or portable electronic devices while driving. The use of hands-free devices through integration with a vehicle or by speakerphone is still allowed. Additionally, first responders, such as police, fire, and EMS, are exempt from the law while performing their duties, as well as anyone communicating with them or a hospital.
The ordinance is, word-for-word, the same ordinance Safford Police Chief Joe Brugman presented to the Safford City Council at its Sept. 10 meeting. At that time, the Safford City Council decided to wait for the other municipalities to get on board with the proposal before adopting it as well. Since then, however, the city has taken the position – along with Thatcher and Graham County – of waiting to see if the state passes such an ordinance.
Arizona does have a statewide texting and driving law, but it is only applicable to drivers in the first six months of receiving their driver’s license.
During Pima’s November meeting, Lewis said while he believed a state law is inevitable, he didn’t want to wait for the state to act and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and taking the lead on this action in Graham County if it means making the streets safer for drivers and pedestrians.
“Thatcher and Safford are 100 percent for it, (but) they want to see if there’s going to be regulation from the state level first because then it keeps their hands clean,” Lewis said. “I like my hands getting dirty.”
The average time a person spends looking at their cell phone screen to either text, email, make a call, or some other use is reportedly five seconds at a time. Traveling at just 35 mph, that means a driver is blind from the road for 250 feet – just 50 feet shy of the length of a football field.
Arizona is only one of two states that doesn’t have a statewide ban on the use of cell phones while driving. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,450 deaths nationally were due to distracted driving in 2016.
In Greenlee County, the town of Clifton passed a law banning handheld cell phone use while driving back in April 2017. That law carries the exact same fine schedule as the one passed by Pima.
Recently, other counties and cities have also initiated their own bans. Yavapai County unanimously approved the manual use of cell phones and other portable communication devices while driving at its Oct. 3 meeting, and the city of Surprise also approved a similar measure.
Pima’s ordinance, like Clifton’s, is a primary enforcement ordinance, meaning officers may pull someone over for violating the distracted driving ordinance and another infraction is not necessary. The city of Tucson initially enacted its distracted driving ordinance in May 2017 with a secondary enforcement limitation and only 44 citations were issued for the rest of the year. It then upgraded the ordinance to primary enforcement March 1, 2018 and promptly issued nearly 1,350 citations and more than 400 warnings in the following four months.
Pima’s ordinance will go into effect in January, and the town will post signs along the highway at the eastern and western sections of town advising travelers who may be passing through of the ordinance.
A violation of the ordinance will allow officers to give a citation for a civil traffic violation, with a first-time penalty of $50, followed by a fine of $100 for a second violation and a $200 fine for a third and any subsequent violation.
Pima Mayor C.B. Fletcher previously said the fines are there to serve as a deterrent and that it is not a money-making effort by the town, which actually collects very little of any money from such fines. He and Pima Police Chief Diane Cauthen added that the new ordinance would have a learning curve and that people will be educated on it and given warnings for the first couple of months it is enacted, so people become aware of it.