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Sedona police on the lookout for drivers using cellphones

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Sedona police on the lookout for drivers using cellphones

  • A new Sedona ordinance forbids all cellphone use while driving except with a hands-free device.
    Jacqueline Pulido/Cronkite NewsA new Sedona ordinance forbids all cellphone use while driving except with a hands-free device.

SEDONA – Like pretty much anyone else who’s driven behind someone distracted by their phone while driving, police officer Casey Pelletier is used to the signs: drifting slowly out of their lane, driving much slower than the speed limit.

Under a city ordinance that took effect in late August, Pelletier can now pull those people over and cite them for using a phone while driving, be it for conversation, texting, Web surfing or checking email. The only use allowed is with a hands-free device.

While Phoenix and Tucson have banned texting while driving as a secondary offense, meaning an officer must have pulled an offender over for another reason, Sedona’s ordinance makes using a cellphone while driving a primary offense.

“Requiring hands-free cell phone use in cars just makes sense because if you are dialing on your phone you are still looking down at your screen, you still can’t see the road,” Pelletier said. “So at the end of the day it is safer to require hands-free.”

Pelletier said texting while driving is the easiest to spot.

“Almost everyone exhibits driving impairments when they start texting,” he said. “They drift all over the place, go different speeds, they’re in multiple lanes.”

For the next six months the Sedona Police Department is in “education mode.” Instead of issuing tickets, officers hand offenders information on the new ordinance and impending fines.

“It’s not like cops are looking for excuses to give out tickets. We really don’t have a quota or anything,” Pelletier said. “Giving a ticket is often to boost the level of education needed. Sometimes a warning is enough, but when they keep endangering others or the violation is excessive a ticket becomes necessary.”

Starting in February, those tickets will cost up to $100 and could cost up to $500 if distracted driving results in a crash.

Stephanie Dembowski, a spokeswoman for AAA Arizona, said she applauds Sedona’s ordinance and hopes it heightens awareness.

“We believe it is things like this that are going to change behavior,” she said. “Granted, it’s not a single solution. It is going to take continued education and awareness and also enforcement before we see these things change.”

According to national AAA research, 90 percent of Americans see texting while driving as a very dangerous threat to their safety when on roadways. Yet 71 percent of teens and young adults say they have composed or sent a text while behind the wheel.

Dembowski said research done across the state indicates eight out of 10 people support a statewide ban on texting while driving. However, bills to establish a ban have repeatedly failed at the state Legislature.

Last session, a bill authored by Rep. Andrew Sherwood, D-Tempe, would created a state law much like Sedona’s ordinance, barring drivers from any cellphone use without a hands-free device.

Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, one of the co-sponsors, said she expects Sherwood to try again next session and wholeheartedly supports the idea.

“I really do believe it makes for a safer driver and would reduce accidents, fatalities and injuries to our citizens, so I think it just make sense,” she said.

Alston said she was involved in the debate over whether or not to make wearing seat belts mandatory.

“Now we can’t imagine whether or not to wear a seatbelt even being a question,” she said. “I think the time will come when we will be surprised that we ever questioned whether or not we should require hands-free devices for telephones in automobiles.”

Fourteen states bar drivers from all cellphone use without a hands-free device, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Alberto Gutier, director of Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said Arizona is unique and that a ban may not be the ideal solution.

“We just need to educate the public,” he said. “People need to know two things – first, driving is a privilege, and second, you have to drive defensively. You can’t drive defensively with a damn phone in your hands.”

On patrol in Sedona, Casey Pelletier said he hopes the new ordinance will encourage people to take driving more seriously.

“People are driving around these 2,000-pound bullets that could kill someone at any time,” he said. “People drive them around barely paying attention, like it is not big deal. And it is; it’s a very big deal.”

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