Lawmakers in the nation's most inaccessible state capital are considering the most aggressive statewide ban in the United States on the use of cell phones while driving.
Six states and Washington, D.C., ban handheld cell phone use while driving and 21 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use for novice drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But the bill sponsored by Alaska state Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, would ban virtually all cell phone use for all drivers.
"We haven't endorsed that approach as an association, but it's clearly where the debate is going," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Safety group based in D.C. "The hang up is convincing the public. It's probably too bold of a step for some people."
Doogan introduced his stringent bill this year after Rep. Berta Gardner, a fellow Anchorage Democrat, proposed specifically banning use of cell phones by drivers under 18. Both bills would make driving while using a cell phone an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $300 and points toward suspension or revocation of a driver's license.
It would be a primary offense under Doogan's version, meaning law enforcement could make a stop and ticket a driver specifically to enforce the rule. Gardner's version makes it a secondary offense, meaning some other violation must trigger the stop.
The only exception in Doogan's bill is for emergency calls. Neither bill makes exceptions for handsfree cell phone use. Both sponsors cite research that indicates the main risk comes from the brain drain that comes with the act of communicating, rather than the physical act of holding a phone. A study from the University of Utah found that cell phone use, whether handheld or handsfree, can cause driver reaction delays comparable to the legal limit of alcohol.
Out of 78,145 traffic accidents in Alaska from 2002 to 2007, 335 - less than half a percent - were cell phone-related, according to state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman Roger Wetherell. More than a third of the cell phone-related accidents are attributable to drivers age 16 to 20.
Amber Burton, 22, of Valdez, said it's natural for her to answer her phone while she drives.
"I think I have more issues with changing a CD or picking up something that dropped than using a phone," she said.
She only has a 3-mile commute to work ("Everything's relatively close in Valdez," she says) but thinks a ban is a good idea.
"I probably would feel safer. Even though I'm probably one of those people" that scares other drivers, she said. "Just because I'm comfortable with it, doesn't mean everyone else is."
Part of Rick Burchell's job as a partner and instructor of AA Drivers Educational School Inc. in Anchorage is teaching his students to watch out for distracted drivers, especially cell phone users.
National cell phone-specific accident data is unavailable, though the ratio of "distracted drivers" in fatal crashes is on the rise, from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Meanwhile, an insurance industry study released Friday by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that state laws banning the use of handheld devices to make calls or send text messages while driving have not resulted in fewer vehicle crashes. It examined insurance claims from crashes before and after such bans took effect in California, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
Driving instructor Burchell sees merit in both bills, but admits he's slightly off-task when he's driving because of his own phone use, albeit through a handsfree system. Part of Burchell's rationale for limiting the risk through a handsfree system rather than abstaining entirely stems from parallels he sees with the safety fight decades ago against radios in cars. Like cell phones, radios introduced new distractions, but neither technology is going away, he said.
When Burchell's son, now 18, got his license, Burchell made him agree to never answer his phone behind the wheel.
"And then - all the kids think this is really despicable - dad made calls to the cell phone to make sure he wasn't answering," Burchell said. "He knew that his automobile would be lost forever if he picked up the phone."
Gardner said she'd like a ban for all drivers, but that the teens approach would meet less opposition. However, Gardner doesn't expect a hearing to be scheduled in the House Finance Committee, where her bill has sat since March despite a zero budget-impact statement from the Department of Public Safety.
"For all intents and purposes, the bill is dead," Gardner said.
That hasn't discouraged Doogan.
"I don't worry about that," he said, noting co-sponsor Peggy Wilson's role as chair of the House Transportation Committee, where his bill is awaiting a hearing date. Wilson is a Republican from Wrangell.
Key lawmakers in gatekeeper roles beyond Wilson's committee have declined to comment or said they don't know what the prospects are for Doogan's bill.
Alaska's big three cell phone service providers have different views on the proposal. AT&T supports restricting phone use by teen drivers, except in emergencies, said spokesman Kerry Hibbs. It recently launched an education campaign on the dangers of texting while driving.
Alaska Communications Systems advocates for laws requiring drivers to use handsfree devices, said spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh.
And General Communication Inc., Alaska's largest telecommunications company, is neutral on the bills, but is generally opposed to legislation that curbs customer choice on handsets, said spokesman Curtiss Clifton.
The effort follows a state ban on drivers texting and watching videos that took effect in 2008 and a national ban on texting for truck and bus drivers that took effect Jan. 26.