A rather quirky decision by a Kenai judge last month created some wiggle room for those of us (yes, us, because I’ve done it too) who stupidly choose to text, email or Facebook while behind the wheel.
Fortunately, one of the first bills prefiled for consideration in the 2012 legislative session aims to tighten up any ambiguity in a law that certainly seemed on the surface to bar all kinds of silly behind-the-wheel activities, including texting.
Currently, Alaska state law prohibits driving if “the vehicle has a television, video monitor, portable computer, or any other similar means capable of providing a visual display that is in full view of a driver in a normal driving position while the vehicle is in motion; and … the monitor or visual display is operating while the person is driving.” While the law does have exemptions — 11 in fact — for screens that provide information like the car’s status, GPS information and people making voice calls, texting is not given an express exemption. For most folks, texting without looking at a screen is all but impossible. Siri and other voice recognition software might change that, and perhaps there are some touch typists for tiny keyboards, but those special cases are 1) unusual and 2) don’t violate the intent of the law, which is to keep drivers’ eyes on the road, not on an electronic device.
Nevertheless, Magistrate Jennifer Wells ruled the law as written wasn’t enough to explicitly ban texting while driving, the Associated Press reported on Dec. 25, 2011. Usually, the terms “activist judge” and “legislating from the bench” are code for “the judge ruled against my side,” but here, it seems Wells is reading vagueness into the law that just isn’t there. The AP reported she believed the law was vague because California wrote two separate laws, one covering distracting screens and the other banning texting. Why Wells decided to be persuaded by California’s solution to a problem Alaska’s legislators answered for their own state is for her to answer. But it strikes of reaching for a different solution to a problem the Alaska Legislature had already figured out. Simply put, anyone who looks at a screen to text should have run afoul of Alaska’s statute, and been subject to a citation if caught.
Regardless of whether the ambiguity is real or imagined, hopefully it will no longer exist come the Legislature’s adjournment in April (May? June?). Reps. Les Gara and Bill Thomas have introduced House Bill 255, which explicitly bans texting while driving. Hopefully, it winds its way through the Legislature this term and onto Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk for his signature, because texting while driving is a practice I and every other driver needs to end. It creates a great danger — not only to ourselves, but others on the road.
Distracted driving is a contributing factor in half, or 3 million, of the traffic accidents in the U.S. in a given year, according to AAA. Car and Driver magazine conducted a June 2009 test that suggested texting while driving (even just reading the texts) can be more dangerous than drunken driving. There’s simply no way to keep both eyes on the road when typing on a tiny keyboard or reading a screen, and the practice needs to not just stop, but be stopped by law enforcement because of the danger created to everyone on the road, not just the texter/driver.
Many driving laws are tradeoffs between safety and convenience, otherwise we’d be required to drive 10-ton roll cages at 5 mph down Egan Drive after a daily inspection by a state trooper. At one extreme, the National Transportation Safety Board recently called for the outright ban of all cell phone usage while driving — talking, texting, hands-free, the works. A complete ban would be overkill and would face incredibly tough sledding in state legislatures. But a ban on texting while driving would get rid of one of the worst road distractions out there, while still leaving the convenience of mobile communication as an option. Texting while driving has been banned once in Alaska, but if it takes different wording in a new law to make the prohibition stick, it’s worth the Legislature’s time. Let’s hope we see quick action on the Gara/Thompson bill this term.
• Charles Ward is Deputy Managing Editor of the Juneau Empire. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of its editorial board.