Bill could ban young drivers' cell phone use

Teens responsible for disproportionately high number of phone-related accidents

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A bill likely to be taken up in the Legislature next month aims to ban anyone under age 18 from using cell phones while driving.

David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

The bill also bars traffic stops exclusively to enforce this rule. Probable cause for a separate violation must trigger the infraction, which could lead to points toward the suspension or revocation of a driver's license.

The bill, sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Reps. Berta Gardner and Chris Tuck, and Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz, is awaiting a hearing date in the House Judiciary Committee. That hearing is likely to be scheduled in March, said Jane Pierson, the Judiciary Committee aide and chief of staff for committee chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks.

Gardner said the idea originally was to cover cell phone use for all drivers and said the bill may end up that way again by the end of the committee process.

"A lot of constituents asked me to ban cell phone use for all drivers. I don't think that's a bad idea, a lot of states are doing it, but I thought what the heck, let's start with teenage drivers." Gardner said. "It's a pretty simple and straightforward idea. The big debate is whether it should be for everybody or just for minors."

Teen drivers are responsible for a disproportionately high number of cell phone-related traffic accidents in Alaska, according data a legislative researcher culled from several state agencies to be presented with the bill.

More than a third of the 289 cell phone-related traffic accidents that occurred between 2002 to 2006 are attributable to drivers age 16 to 20, a demographic that makes up only 7.6 percent of Alaska drivers.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reviewed more than 120 cell phone studies and identified various measurable effects that impair driving performance. Two particular crash studies conducted in Australia and Canada linked talking on a cell phones while driving to a quadrupled risk of crashing.

Muñoz has a 17-year-old daughter who is likely to share a position on the proposed ban with many other teen drivers.

"She's not in favor of it at all," Muñoz said with a laugh. "Probably in time, she would be. At this age? No."

Muñoz wasn't above legislating away her own cell phone driving rights and said she hopes the proposed ban expands to cover all drivers.

This push follows a bill that spent two years in the legislature before being signed into law last year dealing with visual distractions while driving. The big changes in that law banned drivers from text messaging and watching videos.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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