Now, keep your hands on the wheel – or else - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Now, keep your hands on the wheel – or else

December 31st, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Now, keep your hands on the wheel – or else

By Jim Walsh
Staff Writer

After a long delay, it’s time for drivers to finally put down their cell phones unless they want to see red and blue flashing lights in their rear-view mirror.
Arizona’s distracted driving law went into effect three days ago, Jan. 1, and Chandler police officers and their counterparts throughout the East Valley and beyond are planning to write citations right away, trying to break motorists’ dangerous habits of texting or checking emails behind the wheel.
The law originally was passed in 2019 after a driver struck and killed a Salt River-Pima Maricopa tribal officer along the Loop 101, but it included an 18-month educational window during which officers could only issue warnings.
While officers will still have discretion to issue warnings, their advice is simple: don’t count on it.
The new law makes it illegal to touch a cell phone while driving – or even to rest it on your lap, another habit police have noted – with a call to 911 one notable exception.
Drivers are still allowed to use hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth, that are commonly built into the dashboards of most modern cars and trucks.
The penalties are civil fines ranging from $75-$149 for the first offense, and $150-$250 for the second or subsequent offenses.
And a violation is considered a “primary offense” – meaning that police can stop drivers for talking on the phone alone and do not need any additional violations to pull them over.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety has issued 15,000 warnings, as directed by Gov. Doug Ducey, who signed the bill into law, said Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman.
“The whole reason for the law is to keep people safe on our roads. The best thing we can do is keep them from being distracted,’’ he said.
Traffic safety advocates say that distracted driving causes the same level of danger as an impaired driver with a .08 percent alcohol level, the minimum level at which Arizona drivers are presumed to be impaired under state law.
Police in Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler all say they have been issuing warnings.
Gilbert took a somewhat different approach, designating a series of six “hands free duty’’ days in which officers made traffic stops and issued warnings to drivers holding a cell phone in their hands, said Brenda Carrasco, a Gilbert Police spokeswoman. The last of these warning events is planned for this week.
Carrasco said activity on the department’s social media pages indicates that some residents are irritated by distracted drivers and look forward to enforcement of the hands-free law.
“I think it will depend upon the circumstances,’’ whether some is cited or warned for violations noted in the new year, she said.
After issuing a long series of warnings, Mesa police traffic Officer Mike Kuntz is looking forward to issuing citations, saying that they tend to make a longer-lasting impact on the behavior of drivers.
“I educate a lot of people. Every time I drive past a car and they are on the phone, I make them put down the phone,’’ he said.
Kuntz said drivers have been backsliding into their old habits during the educational campaign rather than improving their safety by putting down their phones.
“A year ago, a lot of news agencies reported it. I would say that initially, it improved,’’ he said.
But Kuntz said authorities now need to regain the momentum lost during the long delay in enforcing the law.
“You drive down the road, we all see there are so many people on their phones. It’s ridiculous,’’ Kuntz said. “There will be no more warnings from me. There will only be citations. I have been waiting for 1 ½ years to give citations.
“I need to gain compliance from you,’’ Kuntz said, adding he’s not buying excuses.
“Just put it down. If you can’t put it down, put it in the trunk,’’ he said.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he is planning a public service campaign to remind drivers that the state law takes effect on Jan. 1.
Chandler and Gilbert police said they also are planning to post safety videos about the new law’s requirements on the social media as another method of reminding the public that it is becoming effective.
“No one likes to be pulled over. Being pulled over is the best message for people who are driving distracted,’’ Gutier said. “I think the momentum will come right back.’’
Gutier said he believes the new law will save lives and that it represents a direct opportunity to improve public safety.
“Even though we had more than a year of warnings, now it’s the real thing,’’ he said. “People need to put their phone down.’’
Sgt. Jason McClimans, a Chandler police spokesman, said it’s not realistic to think all drivers will suddenly put down their phones and pay attention to their driving on Jan. 1.
“It’s going to continue to happen. It’s so ingrained in people’s heads,’’ McClimans said.
The public needs to understand that driving is a complicated act requiring their full attention and that the vast majority of texts and messages can wait until they are parked, he said.
“We believe the number of distracted driving citations will increase dramatically,’’ McClimans said, adding that he thinks there are circumstances where a warning will suffice in changing someone’s behavior.
“There are certain people out there who understand warnings. We feel they won’t do it again,’’ he said.
Marc Lamber, a personal injury attorney, said he has represented many clients who have lost a loved one or have suffered serious injuries from distracted driving.
He recalled a time when there was more tolerance for impaired driving before extensive public education campaigns changed people’s attitudes.
Because almost any hazard can pop up suddenly while driving, “you need to have full attention with your hands and cognition with your brain,’’ Lamber said.
“I see more and more accidents involving someone who is on the phone and distracted. Ninety-three percent of accidents are caused by human error,’’ he said.
He also said that the law taking effect and Bluetooth being widely available, when it comes to motorists keeping your hands off their phone behind the wheel, “I hope it will become as automatic as wearing a seatbelt.”


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