There’ll be no more texting while driving in Alaska, starting today.
Under legislation passed by the Legislature during the last session and signed into law by Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday, it is now a crime to drive while texting.
Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said the goal is not only to protect drivers from their own bad decisions, but to protect the public as well.
“The idea is to save lives, my life, your life — it is the innocent who usually get killed anyway,” he said.
The Legislature tried to ban texting while driving once before, but found its effort overturned by a judge who said the law wasn’t specific enough.
House Bill 255 specifies typing on electronic devices is banned, but doesn’t go so far as to ban all cell phone communications, which some legislators had wanted. The bill differentiates between texting, and dialing a cell phone, which remains legal.
Thomas said there was no political agreement on cell phone usage while driving, but there was widespread agreement among legislators that it was simply not safe to ever text while driving.
“When you are texting, your reaction time is slower even than when you are drunk, you are 20 times more likely to get into a crash or collision when you’re texting,” said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, co-sponsor of the bill with Thomas.
Thomas said when drivers have an urgent text, they should pull over or wait until they get to their destination.
That’s not much of a delay anywhere in Southeast, including his hometown, he said.
“For Haines, it is easy,” Thomas said. “You get out 4 miles and there’s no cell phone service anyway.”
The bill had strong support from Southeast legislators, with Reps. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell and Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, both co-sponsors.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, sponsored a bill to ban cell phone usage while driving. While that bill failed, she also supported Thomas’ bill.
Thomas said he had expected criticism from folks fearful of losing their right to text, but said there is a growing recognition that there is simply no safe texting while driving.
“I think the people would rather have a misdemeanor violation (for texting while driving) than have a felony assault if you kill somebody while you are texting,” Thomas said.
Part of the bill is to change the mindset that texting while driving is OK, Gara said.
“People do think it’s a social thing, texting while driving, but we have to change the mindset like we’ve done over the last 20 years with drunk driving,” he said.
The bill bans a driver from communicating via a computer display or cell phone on which they are either typing or reading a visual display, the bill says.
That’s only while the vehicle is in motion, Gara said.
House Bill 255 passed overwhelmingly, but it took until the last day of the session to do so. There were only six “no” votes, five in he House and one in the Senate.
Thomas said that the late passage showed it would not have been possible to expand the bill to also cover talking on a cell phone and still win passage.
“We knew that if we had tried to address that, our bill would have died,” Gara said.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.