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House votes to crack down on texting while driving

Posted: April 11, 2012 - 12:04am

The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to make it a crime to text while driving.

The new law is intended to save lives, but came despite some concerns about additional government intrusion in people’s lives, even among its supporters.

Supporters said the bill is needed because drivers distracted by texting are putting others at risk.

“When you are texting and driving you take your eye off the road for 4.5 to 6 seconds, which is the length (of time it takes to cover the distance) of a football field,” said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, one of the prime sponsors of House Bill 255.

Recent accidents in Anchorage have shown how dangerous that can be, he said.

The Legislature had already banned texting while driving, or so it thought. A Kenai judge ruled the intent of that law was not clear.

House Bill 255 overturns that judge’s decision, declaring it “legally incorrect.”

The bill passed the House 34-5, with all Southeast representatives in favor. Reps. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, joined as sponsors, and Reps. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, supported it as well. Muñoz had earlier introduced a bill to ban cell phone use while driving to save even more lives, but that was voted down in committee.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who joined Thomas as a prime sponsor, said that a National Conference of State Legislatures study showed somebody who was texting while driving was 20 times as likely to cause an accident or a near accident than someone who wasn’t.

It was even worse than being drunk, he said.

“While texting or reading a text, you are slower in reacting to people who you may kill than even when you’re drunk,” Gara said.

Alaskans don’t need more distractions, Thomas said.

“Just living in Alaska, to look off the side of the road to a bear or moose is distracting enough,” he said.

Thomas acknowledged making texting while driving a crime was a harsh punishment, but said it would get the public’s attention and was better than the alternative.

It is better to have a misdemeanor for violating the law than have a felony for killing someone, Thomas said.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said that took the law a step too far.

“This is not about whether this is a safe activity to do, this is about making it a criminal action for folks who do chose to text,” he said.

That’s too limiting for citizens, he said.

“Government has done a lot to restrict regular citizens from doing regular things,” he said.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, questioned whether the law was needed. She voted against the bill.

“I think everybody here knows that texting is wrong, and they shouldn’t be doing it,” she said.

Despite the lopsided vote, even supporters said they had some concerns.

“I’m very concerned when we have to pass laws that encroach on individual freedoms, laws that are essentially legislating common sense,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, also expressed reservations before voting for the bill. She questioned both its effectiveness and its fairness.

“You can’t legislate common sense, you just can’t,” she said.

And texting is just one way that drivers are distracted.

“I’ve been rear-ended from someone reading the newspaper,” she said.

Both Hawker and Millett said the bill was strongly supported by their constituents.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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

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