Heads up Arizona drivers. The news Hands Free AZ law is already being enforced. Please put your phone on Do Not Disturb behind the wheel. Your texts can wait.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday signed a statewide ban on handheld cellphone use while driving. But while the law took effect immediately, penalties didn’t.
Ticketing — and fines ranging from $75 to $250 — won’t kick in until January 2021.
So, can police pull drivers over between now and then?
And what happens in cities that already have cellphone bans in effect, tickets and all?
Here’s what we know right now.
Unless you’re using it in hands-free mode or while stopped, law enforcement can pull you over and issue a warning.
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Officers can’t ticket you for the violation, however, and they generally can’t take or inspect your phone.
The text of the new law does not prohibit officers from ticketing or arresting you if you’re engaging in other illegal behavior — for example, you’ve been drinking — when they stop you, now.
Officers in the nearly 30 Arizona municipalities with texting or cellphone bans can fine and ticket you before the state law takes effect.
Cities that don’t have bans can also enact their own cellphone bans during that period.
State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, the Phoenix Republican who sponsored the legislation signed into law Monday, said the extended warning period will allow drivers to understand what is and is not allowed before penalties kick in.
“If you talk to the insurance companies and (other advocates), there’s going to be a massive public education,” she said. “The idea would be to never have to issue a single ticket, because people get it. They will get the message and start putting their phone down while driving.”
Gov. Doug Ducey signs HB 2318 in the rotunda of the Arizona Capitol Museum on April 22, 2019. The bill prohibits talking or texting on a phone in AZ. Jen Fifield, Arizona Republic
Former state Sen. Steve Farley, the Tucson Democrat who first proposed a texting-while-driving ban in 2007, said he believes media publicity alone “can convince people to put down their phones.”
“The more people that hear about it, even without the law, we have been able to get some people to put their phones down,” he said.
Ducey said officials “want people to understand what’s happening when they have their cellphones in their hands, the accidents that have been avoided.”
“We’re not looking to write tickets. We want to change behavior,” he said. “We want to give people the opportunity to make that behavioral change, but we’re going to insist that they do it.”
Researchers who’ve examined the effectiveness of cellphone bans in other states haven’t devoted much time to analyzing whether, or how, driver behavior changes when states provide grace periods. They’ve instead focused on what happens once officers start writing tickets.
But David Teater, a consultant and traffic-safety advocate who for years has worked to stop distracted driving, said early seat belt laws provide a perfect case study.
“The very first ones either had delayed enforcement or they just plain weren’t being enforced, so nobody followed them,” he said. “It wasn’t until we started doing high-visibility enforcement and campaigns like ‘Click It or Ticket’ programs that things changed.”
He said he similarly “wouldn’t expect any impact in crashes being reduced because of driver distraction until (Arizona’s) law is enforced” through tickets and fines.
“Delayed enforcement, in my opinion, is a way for politicians to kind of try to keep everybody happy, and as a result, it really waters down the law,” he said. “People just don’t follow the law until there’s a real consequence.”
Studies of texting and cellphone bans over the last decade generally have come to two conclusions.
First, researchers find that laws banning texting while driving are not as effective as laws banning all handheld cellphone use.
That’s because cellphones can provide plenty of distractions aside from texting, and because officers have to specifically observe drivers writing or reading a message to write a ticket.
Researchers’ second key finding: Bans must make cellphone use a primary offense — in other words, they must allow officers to pull drivers over for cellphone use alone — to have any teeth.
Making it a secondary offense is essentially useless and results in much fewer citations, they’ve found, because officers can’t stop distracted cellphone users unless they believe drivers are violating another law.
Arizona’s cellphone law incorporates both of these recommendations, which means it has a solid chance of deterring distracted driving.
If the state wants to make the law even more effective, driver-safety advocates say, it could ban phone use entirely, including hands-free systems.