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Cell phone ban rejected by House committee

Rep. Muñoz’ bill gets voted down in committee

Posted: April 16, 2011 - 10:44pm

Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz’ car cell phone ban veered off the road to passage, crashed and burned Friday in the House Judiciary Committee.

That may give the second-term Republican legislator the distinction of having sponsored one of the rare bills to have actually died in the 27th Alaska Legislature.

“The chairman didn’t like the bill, that was obvious,” said Muñoz after the hearing.

At the Capitol, it is unusual for bills to get voted down. Usually, unpopular bills simply languish, while their sponsors try to gather more support.

But Muñoz’ House Bill 33, which would have barred making calls with a hand-held cell phone while driving, stirred unusual passions among Judiciary Committee members.

Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he regularly used his cell phone while driving and didn’t want to give it up.

“If I get a call on my cell, I’m going to answer it,” he said.

Skeptical committee members warned that a lot of other things in cars could distract driver as much or more than cell phones, ranging from drive-thru hamburgers to pet dogs.

“There’s so many ways to be distracted,” said Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla.

He said he doubted the bill would solve anything and didn’t want to single out cell phones.

Lynn also said he worried about the precedent.

“If we pass this bill, how much other nanny-state legislation will come before us,” Lynn said.

Reps. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, and Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, said they’d agree to a ban on minors using cell phones while driving, but not adults.

Committee Chair Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said thought cell phones were more likely to be a help than a danger to drivers.

“For me, cell phones save lives,” he said.

The committee’s savaging of the bill came despite testimony from Juneau resident Rick Deising, who described an extremely close call with a distracted driver on a cell phone who turned in front of him while leaving the Department of Transportation building while he was rising his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and very nearly caused a horrific accident.

“It will shake you right down to the foundation of your soul,” Deising said

Muñoz didn’t attend the hearing, but staffer Kendra Kloster presented the bill and watched it get shot down.

As committee discussion showed little support for the bill, Chair Gatto went one step further and called for a vote.

“I’d like to settle this today,” he said.

The committee rejected the bill by a 6-1 vote, with only Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, a co-sponsor, voting in favor.

“We’ve closed down the conversation on House Bill 33,” Gatto said, but said Muñoz could introduce a new bill next year that incorporated some of the committee’s criticisms.

Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, said he would have supported a ban on minors using cell phones while driving, but Muñoz said she was unlikely to introduce such as bill.

“I personally would not carry a bill that just targeted people under 18 because I think older drivers need to set an example for younger drivers,” she said.

Muñoz said she would continue to look for ways to improve safety, but probably wouldn’t introduce another bill.

“I’m willing to continue to work on it, but as long as we’d face that kind of opposition on a committee that it clearly has to go through to get through the process then I would not,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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