Red light for texting while driving starts at midnight
Whether you're driving home after the bars close on Saturday night, or making your way to church the next morning, you might want to put your cell phone away.
Starting at midnight, texting while driving will be illegal in Tucson.
And it's a primary offense: Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Tucson police can stop drivers suspected of texting while driving as the result of a law passed by the City Council in February.
Officers need no other reason than reasonable suspicion that a driver is texting to make a stop, said a Tucson Police Department spokeswoman.
Sgt. Maria Hawke would not discuss what specifically might prompt a stop, saying she would not comment on hypothetical situations.
"What we're going to do is follow the statute. If it's not in the ordinance, it doesn't apply," Hawke said.
"Officers will have the authority to cite or warn that they maintain in other stops," she said.
The law isn't limited to texting. It prohibits using a wireless device to "compose manually, send or read a written message for the purpose of non-voice interpersonal communication including texting, emailing and instant messaging, while the motor vehicle is in motion."
Since 2005, studies have indicated that the distraction caused by text messaging while driving has a similar effect on reaction times and driver awareness as drunk driving.
"Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind," according to a Department of Transportation study.
"Because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction," according to Distraction.gov, a website run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Just talking on a cell phone while driving, whether it's hand-held or hands-free, slows a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent, according to a University of Utah study.
Arizona statutory minimums for first-time DUIs include at least 24 hours in jail, nearly $1,500 in fines, and about $1,000 in mandatory fees for alcohol counseling, ignition interlocks and MADD fees.
The penalty for texting while driving stands at "not less than $100 plus any other penalty assessments authorized by law," according to the statute, as long as an accident is not a factor.
If texting was a factor in an accident, the fine jumps to not less than $250 in addition to other penalties.
Violations are civil, non-moving violations so tickets are not reported to insurance companies.
Talking on a cell phone while driving is still allowed under the law, as is dialing. The law also doesn't cover using a smart phone to look at websites or use GPS applications.
As long as the vehicle's not moving, texting is allowed. But once you pull away from that red light, even just reading a text or email might earn you a ticket.
Police, city bus drivers and EMTs exempted
The law exempts law enforcement, bus drivers and ambulance drivers - provided that "use of the handheld wireless communications device is made as part of their official duties."
District 28 state Rep. Steve Farley — who said he was the first state legislator in the country to introduce a bill prohibiting texting behind the wheel in 2007, and a sponsor of another ban that just failed in the statehouse — was surprised at the exemption.
"You can't train yourself to look at something you're not looking at," the Democrat said. He added that interstate commercial driver licenses already prohibit texting while driving.
"This law would be superseded by that law," he said.
In 2010, Department of Public Safety director Robert Halliday admitted to being involved in a car accident in 2007 because he was distracted by his Blackberry.
"I was looking down when I should have been looking up," Halliday wrote in a collision report.
DUI danger at a fraction of the price
Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik voted for the law. Asked why penalties for texting are not in line with the penalties for DUI, even if the dangers are similar, he said, "We're going after the low-hanging fruit. It would be difficult to get the Council to agree to stiffer penalties and we want to use this law as a tool to get the word out about the dangers of texting (while driving)."
"We want people to drive with eyes on the road. If we find that this law isn't working, we might need to up the ante," Kozachik said.
"The purpose of this law is to get the word out there about how dangerous texting is while driving," the Republican councilman said.
Farley agreed that penalties in the Tucson law are far below DUI penalties and said, "We need to get to the point where we get them more in line."
"In the '60s and '70s drinking and driving was sort of a joke. It wasn't taken seriously. By the 1990s it wasn't a joke," Farley said.
Farley said he's not afraid of the law's primary offense nature being used as a pretext for illegal stops by police.
"There are already plenty of reasons cops can pull you over... tail lights, lane changes. I trust police not to abuse this or any law," Farley said.
"We need to stop texting while driving. It's that simple," he said.
"Getting texting laws on the books also forces drivers' ed programs to teach the dangers of texting," Farley said.