Surprise leaders discuss distracted driving ban

Surprise Police Chief Terry Young presents a draft police, which would ban distracted driving, during the City Council's June 19 regular work session at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza, Surprise. [Courtesy of city of Surprise]

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By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

City leaders are considering a measure to penalize drivers distracted by phones and other electronic communication devices.

Surprise City Council heard the first draft of a proposed amendment to city code, which will – if adopted – penalize drivers who engage in dangerous activities with handheld devices while on the road.

The presentation and discussion occurred at the panel’s June 19 regular work session at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza, Surprise.

Surprise Police Chief Terry Young explained his department’s approach to crafting the language in the amendment.

“The first thing that we did was took a look at current state law – and I’m sure, as you all know, there really is no such thing here in Arizona,” Mr. Young said. “We are one of few states that has nothing relative to this issue.”

He noted a pair of Arizona laws will take effect July 1, which will penalize only those driving on a learner’s permit and those under 18 during the first six months of holding a driver’s license.

“I suppose the thought is that after you’re 18 it’s no longer dangerous,” Mr. Young quipped, prompting chuckles from the panel and audience in Council Chambers. “But that’s where we’re at right now.”

He said staffers led by police department attorney Harold Brady had looked at language used in similar ordinances proposed and enacted by municipalities and counties around the state to come up with their initial proposal.

The basic ordinance reads: “No person shall, except as otherwise provided in this section, use a mobile device while operating a motor vehicle upon a street or highway, unless that device is specifically designed or configured to allow hands-free use and is used in that manner while operating a motor vehicle.”

Violation would be a primary offense, which means if an officer sees a driver breaking the rule, the driver can be pulled over and possibly cited for that action alone.

The chief asserted making distracted driving a primary offense is needed to ensure public safety.

“I think that’s important because we see it all the time,” Mr. Young said. “I can tell you I myself see it all the time … I think the officers are capable of determining whether or not someone’s using that device with their hands while they’re driving or sitting in traffic.”

He said most other ordinances have only limited texting, but that the Surprise ordinance, as currently worded, would also penalize talking on the phone while driving unless a driver uses a hands-free device.

“It makes it clear that if you’re having a conversation and you’re needing to use your hands to do that and you’re not able to use your hands to control the vehicle, that that’s identified as a hazard and, under this current draft language, would be prohibited,” Mr. Young said.

However, some exceptions are built into the draft.

These include: Public safety personnel, such as police officers and ambulance drivers; and anyone using the device to contact public safety officials to report an emergency.

Delivery drivers using CB radios or other communications devices to do their jobs, as long as they are not creating a hazard, would have an affirmative defense (though not exemption) from prosecution as well, he said.

District 1 Councilman Roland F. Winters praised the police department for drafting the measure while criticizing state lawmakers for failing to do so.

“This is long overdue, I think,” said Mr. Winters. “Since our esteemed folks up in Phoenix do not want to take a lead on this for the state, we do have to step in and do something. Most every other state in the union has laws against driving while speaking on the phone or texting and we’re losing a lot of young lives every year.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures cited data as of 2017, revealing that no state bans “all cell phone use by all drivers.”

However, text messaging is banned in 47 states and 16 states have prohibited hand-held cell phone use while driving.

District 5 City Councilman Skip Hall said increasing rates of roadway fatalities and the proliferation of mobile devices necessitate action by local leaders sooner than later.

“Arizona is the highest per capita rate of pedestrian deaths in the United States,” Mr. Hall said. “From 2010 to 2016, mobile phones have increased 236 percent in the United States and I’m sure it’s the same in Surprise. We’re no different.”

He said drivers everywhere have become too comfortable with using phones and other devices while driving and need to be reminded safety is their top obligation while using the roads.

“Driving is a privilege and it’s not a right. It’s a privilege,” Mr. Hall said. “We’re driving 45, 50 miles an hour down Bell Road and we’re in a 4,000-pound vehicle – a lot of bad things can happen if we don’t pay attention.”

Mr. Hall suggested he would likely support the measure, especially since Surprise is home to a greater proportion of vulnerable people, including children and senior citizens.

Vice Mayor Ken Remley said Surprise leaders would attend a mixer next week with leaders from other West Valley municipalities, where further discussion of the proposed distracted driving ban will likely take place.

Mr. Young said his staff will continue to research the issue and take in public comments about the proposed ordinance, which Surprise leaders will likely consider for action later this year.

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