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Updated Jan 16, 2013 - 11:57 am

Lawmaker: Federal grants may sway lawmakers on texting ban

State Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, has tried for six years to get lawmakers to approve a statewide ban on texting while driving. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Lauren Ettlinger)

PHOENIX - A Tucson lawmaker who has tried for years to ban texting while driving in Arizona said the Legislature has a new reason to do so this year: money.

Sen. Steve Farley, a Democrat, said enacting a law could make Arizona eligible for up to $11 million in federal grant money for traffic safety programs and other transportation needs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees the grants under an act President Barack Obama signed in July.

This will be the seventh year Farley has pushed for a law against texting while driving.

"Our roads are dangerous enough and we spend a lot of our lives on our roads," Farley said. "So it's our duty as legislators to try to make those roads as safe as possible."

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws against texting by all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Phoenix and Tucson have bans, but the only statewide prohibition on texting while driving applies to school bus drivers, who are forbidden to use cellphones for any purpose.

Last year, Sen. John McComish, R-Ahwatukee, tried unsuccessfully to ban all cellphone use by drivers under 18 who have permits or have had their class G licenses for less than six months. His bill cleared the Senate but was held in the House.

Farley has introduced bills himself and teamed with Republicans in hopes of garnering bipartisan support. He said he would most likely team with a Republican who would introduce this year's bill.

Michelle Donati, public affairs supervisor at AAA Arizona, said she hopes studies and statistics showing the dangers of texting while driving will sway public opinion and inform lawmakers. She noted that after years of failed attempts Arizona last year expanded booster seat requirements to include children up to 8 years old and shorter than 4 feet 9 inches.

"One of the things that enabled lawmakers to approve that bill and send it to Governor Brewer's desk was increased education and information on the issue," Donati said.

But Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who voted against last year's bill against texting while driving as a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the promise of federal grants wouldn't change her opinion.

"I, for one, am really tired of the federal government continually telling us what to do in our state and tying it to monies or threats of taking monies away," Fann said.

Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said the state's law against reckless driving should already cover texting while driving. He said he would support legislation against texting while driving but believes education is the best way to stop it.

"Texting while driving is something that is ridiculous and totally unacceptable, but the question I always ask is the same: How do you enforce it?" Gutier said.

Farley said education should be part of a three-step process to end texting while driving. He said there also must be a law and appropriate enforcement.

"Just having a law in the books is sometimes enough to strengthen that little cop we all have in our heads," Farley said.

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