Supporters Hope Momentum Elsewhere Leads To State Law Against Text Messaging While Driving

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Cronkite News Service Photo by Elizabeth Shell

Vinnie Sorce’s fiancee, Stacey Stubbs (shown in the picture with Becca Sorce, their daughter), was killed in a 2007 accident caused by a young woman police determined was text messaging behind the wheel. Sorce, shown at his Chino Valley home, said he’d like Arizona to add a law against using cell phones behind the wheel. With national momentum building, two state lawmakers plan to introduce a bill in the 2010 session that would ban text messaging while driving.

CHINO VALLEY — Vinnie Sorce knew something was wrong when he saw a police officer pull into his driveway. He immediately sent his three children, two boys from a previous marriage and a little girl with his fiancee, to their rooms so he could talk to the officer outside.

“Time just froze,” he said.

Sorce’s fiancee, Stacey Stubbs, had headed to Phoenix for a doctor’s appointment.

She never made it.

A Ford pickup truck hit Stubbs’ rented PT Cruiser head-on on an isolated stretch of road near Lake Pleasant, killing her instantly. The other driver, Ashley Miller, 19, was thrown from the truck and later pronounced dead at a hospital.

A familiar pain flooded back. Sorce had lost his first wife, Lisa, to cancer eight years before.

“The hardest thing I thought I’d ever have to do was tell the boys their mom had died,” he said. “All of a sudden I had to do it again.”

A few days later he was enraged to hear that Miller had been text messaging on her cell phone. Based on a message Miller sent a minute before the 911 call reporting the accident, police surmised that she became distracted and crossed the center line.

Crashes blamed on cell phone use and text messaging as well as recent studies outlining the dangers of the practice have helped build interest around the country in restrictions.

As of late 2009, six states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C. — required drivers to use a hands-free device, and 19 states and Washington, D.C., prohibited text messaging behind the wheel, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

Arizona has no law against talking on cell phones or text messaging while driving, and bills to ban one or the other have foundered in previous legislative sessions. But supporters of restrictions say the national momentum will change that in 2010.

“Anyone who follows the news knows people die as a result of texting while driving,” said Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson. “My motivation is to save lives. I’m confident the voters want it.”

Melvin is teaming with Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, to sponsor a bill against text messaging while driving. Like Melvin, Farley has introduced bills to restrict drivers’ cell phone use in previous sessions.

“This is an issue of safety on our roadways,” Farley said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

Recent studies show drivers are much more likely to cause crashes when they’re chatting and especially when they’re tapping away on their phones.

A July 2009 Virginia Tech study found text-messaging drivers were 23 times more likely to cause crashes than if they weren’t distracted. A 2003 University of Utah report suggested distracted drivers are more impaired than drunk drivers.

The Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimated cell phone use attributed to crashes costs the U.S. $43 billion a year and causes about 2,600 deaths annually.

Rumblings of change at the national level could trickle down to Arizona, supporters say. In October, for example, President Barack Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employees from sending text messages while driving for their jobs.

A fall 2009 summit dedicated to distracted driving ended with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declaring distracted driving a “dangerous practice” and a “deadly epidemic.”

In October, a national Rasmussen poll found 91 percent of adults thought text messaging while driving should be made illegal. Fifty-nine percent thought that ban should include any cell phone use.

In 2007, a statewide Cronkite/Eight Poll found that 87 percent of voters favored a ban on text messaging while driving.

Arizona has one statewide restriction on cell phone use while driving: School bus drivers aren’t allowed any cell phone use on the job. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have the same ban.

Motivated by the statistics and the crash that killed Sorce’s fiancee, the Phoenix City Council in 2007 passed an ordinance against text messaging while driving.

It bans sending or receiving any written communication via a cell phone, meaning both text messages and e-mails are covered. If caught, drivers can be fined $100 and up to $250 if the messaging causes a crash.

While opponents called the ban an intrusion and unenforceable, Greg Stanton, a deputy attorney general who as a city councilman pushed for Phoenix’s ban, said it was important to make a statement.

“If it’s truly a safety issue, it’s appropriate for the government to get involved when an activity puts other people in danger,” he said.

The closest Arizona has come to a law was the 2009 legislative session, when Melvin’s bill against text messaging while driving made it out of committee but failed in a Senate floor vote. Farley has introduced bills seeking to ban text messaging while driving and to require drivers using cell phones to use hands-free devices, but those went nowhere.

“We can’t legislate against all stupidity, but we can legislate against costly and dangerous stupidity,” he said. “The reason we have laws is because not everyone is going to follow their common sense.”

Melvin and Farley said they will have to overcome a strong libertarian mindset among state leaders and the public.

“I’m not fond of people who are texting while driving, but that’s your prerogative to do,” said Sen. Manuel V. “Manny” Alvarez, D-Elfrida, who voted against Melvin’s bill.

“Us as a state shouldn’t tell you how to live your life.”

“Texting and driving is a horrendous practice,” said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “But let’s not become a nanny state where everything has to be legislated and mandated. We have a lot of other issues that are more important.”

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