Sat, May 25

LISTEN: What you need to know about Cottonwood's new distracted driving ordinance
Police Chief Steve Gesell talks enforcement, state culture change

Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell. VVN/Bill Helm

Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell. VVN/Bill Helm


Off The Grapevine Episode 4: Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell on cell phone use while driving

COTTONWOOD -- As state lawmakers push legislation to curb distracted driving, Arizona cities and towns are taking the lead on the issue. Most recently, Cottonwood and Jerome.

But these ordinances on cellphone use while driving may never be enforced, said Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell, if a statewide ban is passed.

“It will be superseded – ideally – by a state law,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping.”

Arizona is one of only three states that doesn’t have a general statewide statute addressing distracted driving. The current legislation is narrowly tailored to only apply to school bus drivers and teenagers.

Lawmakers are facing increased pressure to pass a statewide ban following the death of Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend, who was struck and killed by a distracted driver. The driver later told authorities that he was texting while driving.

State Senator Kate Brophy McGee introduced Senate Bill 1165 in January. The ban would make any use of handheld devices behind the wheel illegal. The Executive Committee of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns recently voted unanimously to support the bill.

Local municipalities, in the meantime, are taking matters into their own hands.

Cottonwood’s new ordinance was unanimously passed by city council earlier this month. It updates city’s existing code to mirror the one adopted by Yavapai County in October. Jerome passed a similar ordinance on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

VVN: Cottonwood already had an ordinance on the books addressing cellphone use while driving. What’s different about this new ordinance?

Gesell: The ordinance that was on the books was very comprehensive. It mentions the use of cellphones without a hands-free device but it’s listed in kind of an ambiguous way along with other activities that may distract a driver on the road, which conceivably makes it questionably enforceable … it was really in need of revision regardless. It had antiquated verbiage mixed with really kind of an over-broad focus on distracted driving in general.

VVN: Can you talk about the difference between a primary and a secondary offense?

Gesell: The primary offense is if an officer is driving down the road and they see in this instance … a violation of this ordinance they can pull the vehicle over and take enforcement action.

A secondary offense would be a vehicle seen by the officer for speeding, the officer pulls the driver over who was also while they were speeding using their phone in a manner that is not consistent with the ordinance or the state law.

VVN: What is the penalty?

Gesell: It is a civil offense. Not a crime. Just like if you got a traffic ticket for failing to stop at stop sign. One of the questions that we need to delve into … ordinances that govern traffic violations generally don’t add to a driver’s points against their license. I’m pretty confident that would be the case here. We’re still waiting for a final answer on that.

VVN: In your experience, who is more likely to be a culprit of using their cellphone while driving?

Gesell: You know, that’s a great question and I could probably answer that as well as you could. You drive down the street and you see people on their phone. I think mobile phones for a guy that’s in my age bracket or my demographic have certainly seeped their way into daily activities and daily routines whereas people in your demographic – people who are younger – you group up with this. Maybe the younger generations, I would guess – they’re probably going to be a bit more intertwined with that device than say an older driver.

VVN: What about people who need to use the GPS on their phone while driving? Is that also not permitted under this new ordinance?

Gesell: The state piece of legislation – as it sits now – completely allows that … it just has to be in the driver’s field of view as they’re looking at the road. Meaning, it has to be on your dashboard. It can’t be on your lap. I think we are all guilty at some point in time. I know I am.

VVN: Arizona has been battling with the issue of distracted driving for quite some time not with much progress in the legislature until recently. What do you think has changed?

Gesell: If you look at the statistics, some of that is culture or prevailing political climate. Interestingly enough, if you look at the states that have those laws in place, most of them are blue states. There are red states that have these ordinances and laws on the books, however, they’re more predominantly in blue states. Blue states tend to legislate. There’s more government generally. More acceptance of more regulation in blue states rather than red states. That’s probably one piece of it.

…Quite frankly, we live in a society where political will is generally garnered after tragedy and that’s what it takes many times to in this case to get the state legislature to take action.

VVN: What else would you like people to know? Any final thoughts?

Gesell: It’s entirely conceivable that we may never enforce Cottonwood’s ordinance because it will be superseded – ideally – by state law. That’s what we’re hoping and that’s what the communities and cities and Yavapai County collectively hoping. If we all adopt similar ordinances, then that will prod the state to enact legislation finally. Because the last thing we need is patchwork ordinances all over the state.

Jerome also bans cell phone use while driving

JEROME -- If you’re planning on driving up Cleopatra Hill any time soon, it’s time to put your phone away.

Jerome Town Council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday banning cell phone use while driving.

Lawmakers are still pushing for a statewide ban at the Capitol. Cottonwood also recently passed its own ordinance.

“This is one of those things that if we don’t do it, it’s going to be blanketed on us anyway,” said Jerome Mayor Alex Barber.

Ordinance 447 amends the “offenses” chapter of the town’s code to include “Driving while using a portable communication device.”

“I just think it’s really important that we pass this,” said Vice Mayor Sage Harvey. “I’ve seen a lot of people on their phones driving in Jerome … Jerome in particular, it’s really stupid to be on your phone.”