Bill aims to stop drivers from watching DVDs

Legislation would ban video devices that can be seen by the driver while the car is moving

Posted: Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The distractions of the road used to be the kids in the back seat, a dropped french fry, fiddling with the radio dial.

Then technology started creeping in. When cell phones came to be seen as a distraction for drivers, several states reacted by passing laws requiring handsfree units while driving.

Now it's dashboard DVDs.

Last year in Alaska was a trial believed to be the first of its kind: A Kenai man was accused of killing two people in a crash because he was driving while watching a movie. Erwin "Jamie" Petterson Jr. testified he was listening to music, not watching the DVD player, when the two vehicles collided on the Seward Highway in 2002.

He was acquitted in the deaths of Donna and Robert Weiser of Anchorage.

Now a close friend of the Weisers wants to toughen the laws regulating vehicle DVD players.

Rep. Max Gruenberg Jr., D-Anchorage, said he decided to file a bill after several mutual friends of the Weisers approached him.

His own relationship with the Weisers went back more than 20 years. They were part of Congregation Beth Shalom in Anchorage and in the same investment group, he said.

Gruenberg wants to make it illegal to drive while watching a television or video monitor, and to ban installing a video device that can be seen by the driver while the vehicle is moving.

Watching while driving would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine between $2,500 and $10,000, under the measure. That would be bumped up to a felony if a person is injured or dies as a result of a crash.

The popularity of dashboard and rear-seat DVD players is exploding. Last year, 3.4 million vehicle DVD players were shipped globally and 28 major automobile brands now offer DVD entertainment system options, according to the Telematics Research Group.

By 2010, that number will jump to 9.2 million, or roughly one out of every six cars sold in a year, according to Phil Magney, president of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company.

DVD players installed in the center console of a car's dashboard, when properly installed, can only be operated while a vehicle is in park. If the car is in motion, it shouldn't be able to play.

But installers can and do bypass those safety features to enable the player to run whether the car is parked or not.

"These things get put in all the time by individuals that are savvy enough to figure out how to make them run continuously, and they do," Magney said.

Gruenberg said that's just the type of driver he's looking to head off with his proposal.

"There's nothing that really makes it anything other than a traffic violation to do that, particularly if it causes serious injury or death," Gruenberg said. "Nothing makes it illegal to tamper with these things."

Gruenberg's bill wouldn't affect DVD players in the back seat, or vehicle navigational systems.

Alaska is one of three states considering legislation restricting the use of DVD players. Hawaii lawmakers are considering a proposal to prohibit any video monitor forward of the drivers seat. Mississippi also would prohibit the installation of television screens in view of the driver.

Alaska also had considered a cell phone law, but it failed to pass after lawmakers found having kids in the car is more of a distraction than using a cell phone, said to Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

Gruenberg's bill is scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the House State Affairs Committee.

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