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Committee acts to bar minors from using cell phones while driving

Concerns expressed about impulsive teens and 'emotional' girls

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 12:10am

Worried about sometimes-emotional teenage girls and other minors driving while talking on cell phones, a legislative committee Wednesday took steps to stop it.

A divided House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 128, which would bar 16- and 17-year-olds from using cell phones while driving.

The action comes after the failure last year of a bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, which would have banned anyone from using cell phones while driving.

HB 128’s sponsor, Rep. Berta Gardner, told the Judiciary Committee the leading cause of traffic accidents for young people was inexperience and distractions, and that those under 18 should wait until they were more seasoned to combine phone usage with driving.

“They’re most likely to be impulsive, and most easily distracted,” Gardner said.

Drivers can also see their judgment impaired when they’re emotionally upset, she said.

Committee chairman Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said that teens often get emotionally upset.

“Probably the girls,” agreed Gardner, the parent of two children, including a girl.

Not everybody agreed teens were most at risk.

“I don’t think teenagers as a group need to be coddled,” said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.

Teens may be inexperienced at driving, but they also have excellent reflexes, which can make up for that, he said.

Teens are easy to go after because they don’t have lobbyists and don’t vote, he said.

Lynn called limiting what teenagers can do “the camel’s nose under the tent” for other limits.

Passage of HB 128 may lead to the state targeting other groups that have higher rates of accidents, he said.

“If we pass this, who’s the next group that has a high rate of accidents, would it be senior citizens?” asked the 79-year-old Lynn.

Gardner said she understood the civil liberty argument, and that she personally didn’t like seat belt laws.

People should have a right to be foolish if they want to be, she said.

The difference with cell phone usage, she said, was that distracted drivers impact everyone else on the road.

Gardner said that she, like many parents, had barred their children from using cell phones while driving.

“As a parent I unilaterally banned it for my house, but I think some parents would like to have some backup,” she said.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said banning cell phones for teen drivers conflicted with his libertarian view that the government shouldn’t be legislating common sense.

However, he said his legislative survey shows nearly 80 percent support for a ban and he’d be supporting it.

“I represent my constituents, and I respect the counsel they’ve given me,” Hawker said.

Gatto, who had led opposition to Muñoz’ bill last year, voted in favor of Gardner’s more limited ban.

Muñoz’ failed bill would have allowed use of hands-free cell phones, however, something that Gardner’s bill doesn’t allow. Muñoz is co-sponsor of Gardner’s bill.

Gardner’s cell phone ban for minor drivers makes usage a secondary offense, meaning it can be enforced along with something else, but a police officer can’t stop a teen driver for cell phone use alone.

Gatto told Gardner he’d support the measure, but no further restrictions on drivers’ rights.

Those wanting to restrict cell phone usage will get no more bites of the apple, he said.

“No more nibbling at the apple, this is the last and final nibble,” he said.

Muñoz, though, said she’d still like to see a broader ban on drivers using cell phones, but praised the passage of Garner’s bill.

“This is a good first step,” she said.

House Rules Committee Chairman Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, now decides when the bill goes to the House floor for a final vote. He opposed the ban in the Transportation Committee earlier in the process.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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