PHOENIX – Arizona may finally be ready to join the 47 other states who find the practice of texting while driving so dangerous that they have made it illegal.
But supporters of the ban, who have come up pretty much empty-handed for more than a decade, are having to agree to some limits to try to push the bill to the finish line and get it signed into law.
SB 1261 as approved Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology, would create a fine of no more than $99 for a first offense and $200 for repeat violations.
Only if the person using the cellphone or similar device is involved in a mishap that causes death or serious injury would the offense rise to the level of a misdemeanor. But even then, the maximum penalty would be four months in county jail and a $4,000 fine.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who has made passage of some sort of restriction a multi-year effort, also had to agree to language which says that citations can be issued only if the texting was witnessed by a police officer or "established by other evidence.'' But motorists would not have to surrender a phone to an officer who wants to determine if that person was, in fact, texting.
And the legislation spells out that a conviction for a driving-while-texting offense could not be used by the Motor Vehicle Division to take away someone's license, nor be an excuse for an insurance company to raise a motorist's premiums.
The unanimous committee vote sends the measure to the full Senate. But the real challenge could be in the House where lawmakers repeatedly taken a harder stand against what some see as "nanny state'' regulations.
That logic drew a slap of sorts from Sen Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who chairs the Senate panel.
"Sometimes it just seems like our political ideology gets in the way of common sense,'' he said, saying that lawmakers, in discussing this issue "have had a hard time ... to see through a common-sense lens.'' And Worsley had a message for the parade of people who testified, some holding pictures of loved ones who were killed by distracted drivers.
"I'm sorry it's taken so long,'' he said.
If it does get approved, that would lead just Montana as a state with no laws on driving while texting. Missouri law governs only motorists younger than 21.
SB1261 was crafted by Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who has waged a multi-year battle to outlaw the practice statewide. In the interim, some cities and counties have enacted their own bans. But that leaves vast areas of the state with no regulation – and where motorists are free to tap away at messages while driving down the highway.
But even the local laws may not be truly effective.
Michael Infanzon who lobbies for American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, said he has been told that the Department of Public Safety, which patrols all numbered roads, does not issue citations to those who violate local no-texting bans. That leaves broad stretches of highways where those ordinances are virtually ineffective.
Infanzon also took a swat at the penalty provision.
"A misdemeanor for killing somebody is not enough,'' he said.
Farley, however, said the legislation does not preclude a motorist from also being charged with other offenses from the same accident, including reckless driving or even manslaughter. And Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said those who find the penalties inadequate need to recognize the political reality of the multiple failed attempts to enact any law.
"If this is the answer for now, we'll take it,'' she said.
The measure has something else going for it: Farley modeled after legislation approved last year in Texas, which finally decided to ban the practice and become No. 47 among states with such a law. That occurred after the Texas Department of Transportation said 455 people died in the state due to distracted driving, with more than 3,000 serious injuries.
Aside from the limits on penalties, SB 1261 has a variety of exceptions.
For example, texting using a hands-free device would remain legal, even to the point of motorists being able to use their hands to activate or deactivate a function. So would using the device to play music as well as use the GPS and mapping functions.
This year's bill come a year after Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, engineered approval Arizona's first-ever driving-while-texting ban, a limited law that applies only to teens for the first six months they are driving. That was a political decision, with Fann conceding at the time that anything more would not get approved.
To get her 2017 measure heard in the House, Fann also promised that it was not a precursor for more far-reaching restrictions. And she specifically vowed she would not be sponsoring an across-the-board ban on texting while driving in subsequent years.
Fann told Capitol Media Services she has kept that promise even though she is signed on the bill as the lone co-sponsor with Farley. She said that SB 1261 is officially Farley's measure.