SIERRA VISTA — It was a January night when Officer Clayton Townsend of the Salt River Police Department in the Scottsdale area made a routine traffic stop that would change the lives of everyone in his life and ripple out to law enforcement across the state.
As he stood at the side of the car he pulled over for outdated registration, another vehicle came into the right-side emergency lane, striking the car and Townsend.
The officer was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, leaving behind his wife and 10-month-old son.
The driver of the vehicle that caused the fatal wreck, a man with no previous criminal history and a family of his own, told officers he was texting when his car collided with Townsend.
Townsend’s family stood behind Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday as he signed a law officially making it illegal in Arizona to talk or text on a handheld cellphone while driving. The governor credited the family’s advocacy for helping to push the bill through to the state Legislature.
This is the 12th year Arizona has considered enacting such a law.
The ban took effect immediately, allowing officers to pull over drivers using their handheld devices and issue warnings.
Arizona is the 48th state to enact a law banning the use of mobile devices while driving and the law enforcement community of Sierra Vista said the action was a long time coming.
Sierra Vista Police Chief Adam Thrasher said the department receives complaints of distracted driving frequently and the new state law will provide a standard policy for all cities in the state.
“We’ve been resistant in the city to pass an ordinance because we believed this was a state issue and, as a department, the city didn’t want a hodgepodge of ordinances,” he said. “It’s important for the state Legislature to pass a bill that provides consistency across the state.
“Like any other distracted driving, it’s important to emphasize (that) people can’t be doing those things that distract them from driving.”
Having consistency in the laws around distracted driving has been a struggle in the state prior to the passing of this bill; 27 different Arizona municipalities have passed their own ordinances on the topic.
Sierra Vista Mayor Rick Mueller said the clarity the law provides is a crucial to reducing distracted driving in the state.
“My thoughts on this are simple,” he said. “Anything that makes travel on the roads safer is the best option, and one thing I like about this is that instead of having different standards for Fort Huachuca and Mesa and anywhere else you travel, there is now a consistency for the state, so drivers know what they can and can’t do.
“We have to make it understandable and simple; this is really about making the roads safer.”
Sierra Vista interim Fire Chief Brian Jones echoed the benefits of consistency, not just for law enforcement and public safety personnel, but for all drivers.
“I do think it will help because the consistency there. Everybody’s doing it and all the law enforcement will be looking for the same things,” he said. “I think it’s very beneficial for all public safety, not even just public safety, (but) drivers in general.
“Anything we can do to keep our roads safer is good for us.”
Now, there is a clear list of what constitutes illegal cellphone use while driving, what is allowed and how those violations will be reprimanded.
Thrasher said he has put it out to his officers and they will stop people and give out warnings for using their cellphones when driving until actual citations can be given out starting Jan. 1, 2021.
“The cellphones create unique issues, because when they are reading a text or even talking on the phone, it distracts attention from the road more than other things,” Thrasher said. “We will be putting information out on Facebook, doing presentations, talking about it quite a bit and will be sure to continue to put reminders out.”
Making the roadways safer
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,166 people were killed in 2017 due to distracted-driving incidents and the number of those injured in such accidents were even higher.
In Sierra Vista, there were over 700 vehicle collisions last year and SVPD Sgt. Brian Sebastian said a majority of the wrecks were rear-end collisions, many of which were likely the result of distracted driving.
He is optimistic that the new law will help to prevent collisions and injuries.
“I think that having an enforcement tool like this will really help us reduce some really dangerous behavior,” he said. “We are hopeful that this will have a direct effect on our accident rates.”
Jones said distracted driving seems to be the cause of a large number of accidents and that distracted drivers can often be spotted.
“I think we all see them every day, ‘Why is this car driving so slow? Why did that car swerve? What’s going on?’ “ he said. “I think the law is going to be beneficial for our state and especially our community.”
Texting just one part of the distracted driving problem
Educational outreach on the new law and the dangers of distracted driving, particularly texting, have already began locally.
On Wednesday morning, a presentation was held at Buena High School for upperclassmen that included talks from local public safety officials and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well as several videos.
Sierra Vista Fire and Medical Capt./Paramedic Justin Wright opened the presentation by explaining the dangers of impaired driving, which includes driving distracted.
“I have witnessed numerous vehicle accidents in my career caused by some type of impairment, and to say it changes your life forever is an understatement,” he said. “It not only directly impacts the victims involved but also the family, friends, fire personnel, law enforcement officers and the hospital staff.
“Driving while the under the influence of a substance or texting while driving are very serious issues that face many people today, especially teens, and unfortunately, every year provides new evidence to these careless acts.”
Students watched the video confession of Matthew Cordle, a 22-year-old Ohio man who killed a 62-year-old in a deadly DUI incident. In the emotional confession, Cordle begs others not to drive impaired.
Jamie Leon-Guerrero, program coordinator for MADD Southern Arizona, shared her own personal story of loss.
In 2014, Guerrero was working as a 911 dispatcher in Tucson and received a call at the end of her shift that changed her life forever. The call of a cyclist hit by a vehicle instantly made Guerrero uneasy, as she knew her partner, Kris Chambers, only lived two blocks away and often rode her bike at that time.
Guerrero searched the hospitals for her, stopped by the scene and called friends when she could not reach Chambers by phone. Chambers would eventually be identified by her tattoos later that night.
The fire captain and multiple police officers met Guerrero at Chambers’ home.
“I had just taken my last vacation with her two weeks prior, so I pull up this photo, zoom in to the arm because I know that’s the tattoo she’s talking about — a coyote howling at the moon because a coyote ate her kitty cat,” she said. “I zoomed in, turned it around and all the officer does is nod her head.
“Just like that, with a head nod, I found out my partner, the most wonderful person I ever met, was dead ... that was Wednesday, June 18, 2014, the day that changed my life forever.”
Guerrero spoke about how a poor choice by a driver changed so many lives. There are many trips Guerrero would have taken with Chambers, and had to instead go alone with her ashes. The man responsible for death had to leave his family behind for prison.
“Losing someone to an impaired driver or losing someone to someone’s bad choice is a grief and loss that is so hard to get over, because you think, ‘What if they just made that better choice?’ and the reality today is I’ll never get to see her again,” she said. “I’ll never get to hear her laugh again or feel her hug me again or tell her that I love her again. That’s my life now ... because of one person’s choice.”
DUI-related collisions and fatalities have been on the radar for Buena High School, especially this time of year when graduations and proms bring the temptation of substances like alcohol.
About three years ago, Buena’s Film and Television program made a PSA about the dangers of driving while impaired. At the presentation, their newest PSA, made in collaboration with the city and SVPD, debuted to the student body.
The short film depicts two teenagers driving home when the driver strikes another vehicle while texting, resulting in the death of a classmate and injuries to others.
Instructor Timothy Ingold said the decision to highlight the dangers of texting while driving was a collaborative effort with Wright.
“We were thinking we wanted to make a video, not on drunk driving, which is still a huge problem, but now we are aware of how much more prevalent and potentially dangerous distracted driving is,” he said. “Drinking and driving is still a very dangerous possibility and the majority of people are aware that’s a bad thing, but a lot of them at the teenage age aren’t drinking.
“But think about texting and cellphones ... 99 percent of people are using them and some think texting and driving is not a big deal.”
Ingold said the video was done without certainty that a state law would be passed, and that the timing of this news was perfect for debuting the PSA.
Though the Centers for Disease Control found that 42 percent of high schoolers have texted or used their mobile device, Ingold sees distracted driving as something adults are just as likely to do.
“As much as teens are on phones all the time, it’s more so the family,” he said. “Parents are on cellphones more than kids and I wouldn’t be surprised that kids growing up with phones are already more aware.”
Eyes on the road
Law enforcement and public safety officials do have some exemptions from the new rule, and there are several exemptions for members of the public, including people calling in emergencies.
Jones said the fire department likes to set a good example in their driving behaviors.
“The City of Sierra Vista actually has policies and rules and regulations under the code of conduct that say we can’t use our phones — no texting, no email checking or anything of that matter — except for the fire department when they’re looking at their mobile dispatch computers and the police department, as well, and talking on the radio,” he said. “Otherwise, we like to practice what we preach and be safe drivers and safe ambassadors for the community.”
While citations can’t be given out until 2021, the penalties for breaking the new law will include fines of up to $150 for first offenses and up to $250 for subsequent ones. A crash caused by using a handheld device while driving that results in injury or death could bear jail time of six months or more and a fine of $2,500.
FORT HUACHUCA — Members of Sierra Vista’s business community were decked out in their finest Friday evening to celebrate the best of the best at the Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Awards Gala at the Thunder Mountain Activity Center on Fort Huachuca.
The celebration served as a way to not only honor local businesses, large and small, for their accomplishments and service to the community, but for the SVACC to reveal some of their new programs and changes, including a revamped logo and website.
“We are really wanting to change the vision and forward movement of the chamber — we’ve got some good momentum, so it starts with good programs that are going to get us there,” said chamber Director Jennifer Martin.
The new programs include Chamber Champions, in which current members are tasked with engaging and supporting new members, and bringing the young-professional group Cochise Now into the SVACC.
“Every chamber should have a young professional networking group,” said Martin. “Since the chamber is about networking and connecting people, why not have a special dedicated group to help our young professionals match up with other professionals and have experience and get them talking and working together?”
The stars of the show Friday evening, however, were the 2019 awardees. The three finalists in each category spoke about their work in filmed interviews before the winners were announced.
Kathy Riebock, of Kathy Riebock Designs, was the first to take to the stage after being named the Home-Based Business of the Year.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” Riebock said as she accepted her plaque and banner, taking a moment to thank her supporters. “It is a complete honor to even be honored in the first place . . . and for everyone who has ever enjoyed my jewelry, I hope you continue to do so!”
The Boys and Girls Club of Sierra Vista, the organization that is so much more than an afterschool program for many local youth, was the next local organization to snag a prize. Jay Hamwright, the club’s chief professional officer, said that receiving the award for Non-Profit of the Year “meant a lot” to the organization.
“We couldn’t do this without the community, our supporters and our donors,” he said. “It really is a reflection of how great and giving this community is.”
Andre Quiles and Javier Diaz were similarly humbled when they stepped on stage to pick up their award for Small Business of the Year for their family-friendly martial-arts gym, Chute Boxe Academy.
“It was a big surprise,” said Diaz. “We worked hard to get to this point — we haven’t stopped, we’ve still got a ways to go, but it was an honor to get nominated, and it’s an honor to win.”
The last of the business awards went to Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative for Large Business of the Year. CEO Creden Huber pointed out that his employees have “40,000 bosses” as he accepted his prize, as they served the company’s 40,000 members.
“It’s our employees that won this award,” he said.
The celebration concluded with the award for Chamber Ambassador of the Year, accepted with a warm smile by Randy Sueskind of Guild Mortgage.
Most SVACC chamber members, including Martin, were left in the dark as to whom had won the awards until the envelopes were opened. Learning the winners was an absolute, though wonderful, surprise, she said.
“I think we had some fantastic winners — a good representation of the businesses in our community,” she said. “I could not be more thrilled. You could hear the elation when they won, and I’m looking forward to next year already.”
To learn more about the SVACC, their events, programs and membership, visit http://members.sierravistachamber.org/contact.