After a long delay, it’s time for drivers to finally put down their cellphones unless they want to see red and blue flashing lights in their rear-view mirror.
Arizona’s distracted driving law became effective Jan. 1, and police officers throughout the West Valley and beyond are planning to write citations right away, trying to break motorists’ dangerous habits of texting or checking emails behind the wheel.
The law originally was passed in 2019 after a driver struck and killed a Salt River-Pima Maricopa tribal officer along the Loop 101, but it included an 18-month educational window during which officers could only issue warnings.
While officers will still have discretion to issue warnings after Jan. 1, their advice is simple: Don’t count on it.
The new law makes it illegal to touch a cellphone while driving—or even to rest it on your lap, another habit police have noted—with a call to 911 one notable exception.
Drivers are still allowed to use hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth, that are commonly built into the dashboards of most modern cars and trucks.
The penalties are civil fines ranging from $75-$149 for the first offense, and $150-$250 for the second or subsequent offenses.
And a violation is considered a “primary offense”—meaning police can stop drivers for talking on the phone alone and do not need any additional violations to pull them over.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety has issued 15,000 warnings, as directed by Gov. Doug Ducey, who signed the bill into law, said Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman.
“The whole reason for the law is to keep people safe on our roads. The best thing we can do is keep them from being distracted,” he said.
Traffic safety advocates say distracted driving causes the same level of danger as an impaired driver with a 0.08% alcohol level, the minimum level at which Arizona drivers are presumed to be impaired under state law.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said a public service campaign was planned to remind drivers that the state law took effect on Jan. 1.
“No one likes to be pulled over. Being pulled over is the best message for people who are driving distracted,” Gutier said. “I think the momentum will come right back.”
Gutier said he believes the new law will save lives and that it represents a direct opportunity to improve public safety.
“Even though we had more than a year of warnings, now it’s the real thing,” he said. “People need to put their phone down.”
Marc Lamber, a personal injury attorney, said he has represented many clients who have lost a loved one or have suffered serious injuries from distracted driving.
He recalled a time when there was more tolerance for impaired driving before extensive public education campaigns changed people’s attitudes.
Because almost any hazard can pop up suddenly while driving, “you need to have full attention with your hands and cognition with your brain,” Lamber said.
“I see more and more accidents involving someone who is on the phone and distracted. Ninety-three percent of accidents are caused by human error,” he said.
He also said that the law taking effect and Bluetooth being widely available, when it comes to motorists keeping their hands off their phone behind the wheel, “I hope it will become as automatic as wearing a seatbelt.”