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House committee moves texting ban bill forward

Posted: January 27, 2012 - 1:07am

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers moved a bill through the House Transportation Committee on Thursday that puts the state one step closer to correcting what legislators from both parties describe as an error made in the language of a 2008 law that attempted to ban texting while driving. State judges have challenged that law.

One of the cosponsors of H.B. 255, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, provided testimony to clarify the bill’s intent and to preempt concerns about its wording and scope.

Lawmakers are proposing the new law on texting and driving because the state’s intended ban was deemed too vague by a training judge in Fairbanks, and a magistrate in Kenai said the legislature should explicitly ban texting while driving if that is the intent. Current law refers to driving with a “screen device operating” as a violation but never specifically mentions texting.

To avoid ambiguity, the proposed law would describes texting while driving as “reading or typing a text message or other nonvoice message” on any type of device while a vehicle is in motion.

Gara said the bill would clean up the mess instead of waiting for the process of court appeals to play out and that it would serve as a reminder to Alaskans that texting while driving is dangerous, regardless of what courts determine about the 2008 law.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, a member of the Transportation Committee, asked Gara to further establish intent of the bill to avoid future confusion and to ensure that it doesn’t touch the contentious issue of banning cell phone use while driving all together, which is addressed in other proposed legislation: Would this bill apply to talking on the phone? Could people unlock their phones to make a call? Would people using the GPS function of smartphones be charged if this bill becomes law?

The answer to all of those questions, Gara said, is no. He also said the definition of driving in this bill is not the same as the Alaska standards to charge someone with driving under the influence, which can qualify a person as a driver even if their vehicle was not moving at the time of the violation. Instead, to be charged with texting while driving under the proposal, Gara said a vehicle would need to be in motion and that cars stopped at traffic lights or in parking lots would not be counted as drivers until they release their brake.

“It’s carefully worded so not just today’s technology but tomorrow’s technology is addressed,” Gara said. He said the fundamental goal of the bill he co-wrote with Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, is to prevent people from reading or typing while driving regardless of the type of device used.

“It’s hard enough to drive in Alaska because of the natural beauty here,” Thomas said. “You add one extra thing, and it’s just dangerous for everyone.”

The bill, which is currently co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats, has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Carl Gatto, is among the co-sponsors, and he will decide when to schedule a hearing for the bill.

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