Arizona passed a teen texting and driving ban despite the nanny state stigma. But is a mere law enough to get kids to drop their phones?

Driven to Distraction

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: October 2017
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Arizona passed a teen texting and driving ban despite the nanny state stigma. But is a mere law enough to get kids to drop their phones?

Arizona has long resisted policies and laws that may give it the appearance of being a nanny state – the kind of place where “politicians and bureaucrats know more about how to live your life… and raise your kids than you do,” as the Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank the Cato Institute’s website says of laws it views as government overreach. State lawmakers have even gone so far as to resist passing any sort of distracted driving ban, as 47 other states, D.C. and Puerto Rico have. Of the three states without an all-driver texting ban, only Arizona held out on prohibiting texting by novice drivers until this spring, when lawmakers narrowly approved Senator Karen Fann’s SB 1080. But true to the state’s never-a-nanny motto, Arizona’s brand new distracted driving law has all the substance of a Snapchat selfie.

Fann, R-Prescott, says this was her fifth attempt to pass the ban, which applies only to drivers younger than 18 for the first six months of holding their permit and driver’s license, and makes using a cellphone while driving a secondary offense – meaning police cannot pull over a young driver just for text-ing. “It was strictly politics at play – conservative Republicans felt this was a nanny bill, that government shouldn’t be imposing these things,” Fann says of why SB 1080 was so difficult to pass.

Fann describes herself as a “staunch Republican” but says her time on the state House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee showed her the danger of not instituting some kind of texting and driving ban. “I get letters from constituents saying, ‘I almost got wiped out today because a teen texting on her phone drove through the intersection and didn’t realize [the traffic light] was red.’” And though she acknowledges that SB 1080 is a baby step, Fann hopes its consequences of a fine and suspended license will encourage young drivers to focus on driving rather than replying.

In July, Arizona received an F grade in road safety from the National Safety Council, ranking 48th in the U.S. due to lack of motorist safety laws, including no cellphone ban. Last year, Arizona had 962 motor-vehicle fatalities – a 23 percent two-year increase, per the Arizona Department of Transportation, compared to 14 percent nationwide. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports the use of electronic devices while driving is a huge issue across the U.S., with an estimated 3,500 killed and 391,000 injured in distracted driving crashes in 2015.

“Teenage [drivers] are the highest users. They have the highest concentration of distracted driving incidents,” says Melissa Luxton, trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator with Banner University Medical Center-Phoenix. Luxton points to a 2015 NHTSA survey that found 16- to 24-year-olds texted on handheld devices while driving more than any other age group – 4.9 percent, compared to 2.1 percent of 25- to-69-year-olds. “It’s [teen smartphone use] a very different relationship than some of us are used to,” Luxton says, which is why she has “no hesitation” sharing some horror stories from her days as a trauma nurse with teens who attend her community outreach events aimed at curbing distracted and drunk driving. “I’ve had patients that were texting and driving that were killed,” she says. “[I share these stories] not to scare them but, yeah, to scare them.”

Frank Leutz, who owns Desert Car Care in Chandler and hosts workshops for first-time drivers, also favors a “shock and awe” approach. “We’ll acquire a vehicle that was pretty much demolished [in a distracted driving-caused crash],” he says. “It’s hard to get them to pay attention, no matter the age group, unless they have a personal story… so if I can strike emotion in them, those are the elements that can affect change.”

Both Luxton and Leutz agree SB 1080 is a good first step in legislating road safety, albeit a small one, but Maria Wojtczak, owner of the Scottsdale driver training school DrivingMBA, is not so sure: “That law is ridiculous. [It says teens] can’t text for six months of driving, which is an absurd message… after that, it’s fine?” At her school, she tries to eliminate cellphone use altogether, requiring students to turn over their phones and “actually talk to one another.” Wojtczak also tells parents it’s up to them to lead by example: “If you’re still texting and driving, but you don’t want your kids to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

DrivingMBA graduate Maegan Dickerson, an 18-year-old senior at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix, says while she refuses to text and drive, most of her friends still do. There’s a lot of pressure to be in constant (virtual) contact, she says. “If you’re getting blown up with a bunch of texts, [you feel] the need to read and respond right away rather than wait.” As for whether the new law will deter her friends, Dickerson says, “Hopefully it’ll make them think twice, but the reality is they’ll probably keep doing it.”