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Report ranks Arizona traffic-safety laws among lowest

WASHINGTON -- Arizona's vehicle-safety laws continue to be among the worst in the nation, according to a report released Tuesday by a national highway safety advocacy group.

The report by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety gave Arizona high marks for its child-safety and impaired-driving laws, but said the state falls short on laws governing seat belt use, motorcycle helmets, texting behind the wheel and teen driving limits.

"Unfortunately, these laws aren't always at the top of the list," said Jacqueline Gillan, the group's president. "The public is paying with their lives and their wallets when state leaders delay and don't act."

Only Mississippi and South Dakota scored lower than Arizona, which tied with three other states that have fallen "dangerously behind" when it comes to adopting highway safety laws, the report said.

But Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said the report does not accurately reflect Arizona's road safety or law enforcement.

"Arizona is Arizona. We don't have to kowtow to anybody, including the highway safety advocates," Gutier said. "They don't look at the whole picture; they look at little lines on the map."

Gutier said there is always room for improvement but he insisted that Arizona is in pretty good shape. He added that he does not think many of the laws outlined in the report are enforceable.

But Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said the report should be taken seriously.

"It's not surprising we're ranked so lowly," Farley said. "We don't do a very good job of updating all of our driving-safety laws."

Farley said he plans to introduce several traffic-safety bills this year, including one to ban texting while driving, one to let police stop someone for not wearing a seatbelt and another to prohibit minors from using a cell phone while driving.

Farley said his proposed ban on texting behind the wheel -- which he first introduced in 2007 -- has garnered public support but that opposing lawmakers claim it would infringe on freedoms.

He counters that argument by saying the freedom to text pales compared to the freedom lost by "someone who is hit head-on by a texting driver."

Farley hopes that the new Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act will give lawmakers a financial incentive to pass his bills. The law, signed by the president last year, will offer up to $11 million to states to enforce vehicle-safety laws, he said.

The report did give Arizona credit for a new law, which took effect in August, requiring that children from ages 4 to 7 be strapped into a booster seat while in the car. That helped the state improve its standing from the last report by Gillan's group, when Arizona was second-worst in the nation.

But Arizona is still held back by its lack of a primary seat belt law, which lets police pull people over for not wearing a seatbelt, instead of citing them only after they have been pulled over for some other infraction. That and the state's lack of a motorcycle helmet requirement for adults automatically disqualify the state from getting a "green," or passing, grade.

Former Rep. Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City, sponsored the booster seat bill and said it took four years to get the law passed.

A physician convinced McLain that booster seats were necessary for children's safety, but she said some of the other laws promoted in the national report are extreme.

"A lot of my fellow conservatives believe these things shouldn't be mandated at all," McLain said. "We are independent-minded people for the most part."

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