The City of Tucson recently put some bite into its already existing ban on texting while driving. As of February 1st, Tucson police were authorized to stop anyone they see using cell phones while driving. Before, police had to have another reason for the stop. Now, cell phone use alone justifies the stop. During February, the police are giving warnings to educate drivers about the change in the law. As of March 1st, officers are authorized to give tickets. The fine for the first offense is $50.00 with all subsequent offenses costing $100.00.
This ordinance goes beyond just texting and prohibits the use of handheld electronic devices while driving. So that means no phone calls or any manual use of the cell phone. Hands free is OK. Tucson neighbor, Oro Valley, instituted a similar ban on all hand-held devices in 2016. This was at the urging of one of an Oro Valley City Council member who was hit on his bike by a car driven by a texting driver.
Tucson joins many other cities, counties and states across the country banning cell phone use while driving. The State of Arizona currently has no ban except for school bus drivers and other provisional licensees. California bans hand-held cell phone use for all drivers. Certain places, like Colorado, do not ban cell phones while driving except for texting.
In 2016, Pima County banned texting and driving and in so doing, joined Phoenix, Flagstaff and Coconino County. Like the new City of Tucson ordinance, texting and driving in Pima County is a “primary” offense, meaning law enforcement can stop and ticket the driver for texting without the need for some other offense. Notably, the Pima County ordinance does not ban using manually using cell phones for talking. The ordinance is worded to ban “manually” using cell phones “for any purpose other than to initiate, receive, or engage in voice communication”. It is meant to apply to texting but could of course cover checking messages, emails, the internet etc.
These type of laws are meant to discourage distracted driving. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Another organization, the Brain Injury Society, states that texting drivers have a 23% higher chance of causing a crash than a driver who is not distracted. The dangers of drunk driving and texting while driving are comparable. However, the number of drunk driving accidents has declined in recent years, while the number of accidents caused by cell phone use/texting has significantly increased.
Certainly a driver who is distracted by texting and causes an accident is negligent. What about the person with whom the driver was communicating—can that person be liable? A court in New Jersey found that the third-party was not liable but stated that if it could be proven that the third-party knew that the driver was potentially being distracted by the communication, that person could be liable. See: https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/29/tech/mobile/texting-driving-jersey-explainer/index.html
Schmidt, Sethi and Akmajian handles serious bodily injury cases arising out of motor vehicle accidents, and we will certainly investigate the use of cell phones as a factor in such accidents. Be careful out there!