Surprise police enforce texting ban; lawmakers considering statewide measure

By Matt Roy and Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

Surprise Police Chief Terry Young recently updated city leaders about his department’s efforts to enforce the texting ban adopted last year.

City Council unanimously passed the new ordinance in August 2018, criminalizing the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving in the city.

The presentation came at the Jan. 15 regular City Council meeting at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza – the same day Officer Clayton Townsend had been laid to rest, having been slain Jan. 8 when a distracted driver fatally struck him during a traffic stop on the Loop 101 near Scottsdale.

“We joined thousands of men and women from across the state and across the country that came to pay respects to Officer Clayton Townsend, five-year officer of the Salt River Police Department, who leaves behind a 25-year-old wife and a ten-month-old child,” the chief said.

He said the tragedy underpins the need to enforce the texting ban to improve safety in the community.

“This is still being looked into, but preliminarily, this death looks to be because of someone driving a vehicle while using a hand-held mobile device,” Mr. Young said. “And while absolutely tragic, we also all know that this is not the only serious injury or death that has occurred from using a mobile device … this is about saving lives.”

Mr. Young said his department initially focused last fall on educating the public and issuing warnings to local drivers.

Over the three-month period that followed, officers stopped 201 motorists – this resulted in 125 citations and 76 warnings issued, he said.

The citation carries up to a $250 fine on conviction.

The geographic distribution of citations included 46 percent issued along Bell Road, 8 percent on Greenway Road, and 46 percent issued at other locations throughout the community.

Mr. Young said the frequency of violations ranks the anti-texting ordinance among the top citations issued in the city, when prorated across 2018 for comparison.

“It helps to put that in context to look at how we enforce other violations,” Mr. Young said. “Speeding is the one we see most … but this particular ordinance falls within the top 10; in fact, it falls within the top five of our law enforcement efforts in traffic safety.”

The top five list is rounded off with citations for speeding, no proof of insurance, failure to control speed to avoid a collision, and stop sign violations, he said.

Other efforts

Leaders in neighboring Peoria has been working on a draft to ban texting while driving, but this year it appears the Arizona Legislature may finally pass a statewide law addressing this issue.

So, the city has delayed their proposed ordinance to see what the state does.

“It seems to make sense to wait and see what happens at the state legislature.” Mayor Cathy Carlat said. “We will stay tuned.”

Five separate bills have been proposed at the legislature regarding texting or distracted driving this session.

Although none of them had been heard by press time, this is the first year it seems more likely than not something will actually make it through the legislative process and be signed by the governor, said Intergovernmental Affairs Director Thomas Adkins.

“We are keeping a close eye on the legislature. Obviously we have a vested interest and we can’t guarantee what happens, but it may be best to wait and see,” Mr. Adkins said. “If something passes, it could pass in April or May, but it could be June.”

In conjunction with the city’s proposed ordinance, Peoria’s communications department has been working on a campaign to educate residents on a possible ban of texting while driving. This will be put on hold as well.

Marketing and Communications Manager Tim Eiden said a campaign would include educating citizens about the specifics of the ordinance, but also, and maybe more importantly, require complete buy-in from all people — a top-to-bottom approach.

“If we are going to create an initiative to ban texting, we need to lead by example. We need to demonstrate that we too will not be using cell phones,” Mr. Eiden said.

Mr. Adkins added that it would not be wise to launch a campaign educating residents if the city has to later conform to a statewide law.

Citizens would need to be re-educated after they had already been educated, he said.

“There is a strong possibility that if we adopt a city ordinance, it may be preempted in some fashion by the new state law if one is enacted. If we enact an ordinance that conflicts with state law, we will need to thoughtfully consider any complication that could arise from that conflict,” Mr. Adkins said. “Generally it is in our interest to have our ordinance in sync with state legislation. If it is not in sync, it could result in council needing to come back and make changes to an ordinance we already adopted.”

State legislators have tried 11 times to pass a statewide ban on texting, according to a report from Peoria’s city attorney. Arizona and two other states have not adopted legislation banning texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

But Mr. Adkins said it is more likely than not that something will pass this year.

A wide swath of the state’s counties and municipalities beyond Surprise have already adopted their own form of distracted driving bans —  including Glendale, Phoenix, El Mirage, Tucson, Sedona, Fountain Hills, Bisbee, Oro Valley, and Yavapai, Coconino and Pima counties.

Peoria resident Lynda Quartemont said she is deeply concerned Peoria is willing to wait another month or even another year before passing a local ordinance because it is unclear when and if a statewide law might be passed. “

In the meantime, Clayton Townsend’s family didn’t get a law in time for his family,” Ms. Quartemont said. “It could be you. It could be me. Every day I commute on the 101 freeway and I am confronted with distracted drivers. I am confronted with this on a daily basis and I’m sure you see the same thing. Please don’t wait for the state to pass a law. Please don’t wait for another person to lose their life.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.