Alaska Distracted Driving Law
- Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law)
Alaska’s Texting While Driving Stand
The Alaska State Legislature is currently working on new legislation that would effectively clarify a pre-existing law banning the combination of texting and driving in the union’s largest state. The previous legislation from 2008 was recently deemed to be too ambiguous by a judge as it does not specifically mention the act of text messaging (it prohibited simply the use of all televisions, laptops, monitors, and video screens within the sight of the driver).
In its original form, the Alaska law on texting was put into motion due to an incident in 2002 that caused the death of two people from Anchorage. Their car was hit by a man accused of watching a film while driving, but as no specific law was on the books making his action illegal he was acquitted of the murder charge that had been filed against him. When the 2008 law was passed, many in the state began to see it as a bigger possibility that the jurisdiction of the law would soon be enlarged to include any and all use of mobile phones while driving. This has not yet occurred in Alaska, but that does not mean that there have not been numerous bills proposed that would make cell phone use illegal to varying degrees.
These bills have yet to gain widespread support in Alaska due to the generally individualistic and independent nature of the state’s citizens. One of the co-authors of the existing 2008 law, State Rep. Max Gruenberg, said that while his sponsored law was a step in the right direction, he did not think his state was entirely ready to give up their cell phones while driving even if hands-free sets were allowed.
Since the initial bill in 2008, other proposals have been made in 2009, 2010 and 2011-2012. The 2009 bill proposal (House Bill 15) would have made all cell phone use illegal for drivers under the age of 18. The law would have had included a secondary enforcement status, meaning that police officers would have needed a different and significant (primary) reason to pull over a driver under the age of 18. This bill, which also set a $300 fine for the offense, survived into 2010 but was never scheduled to be discussed again in the state legislature and never made it out of the Finance Committee. HB 15 was matched that year with stricter HB 257 which proposed going one step further and outlawing all cell phone use for drivers regardless of their age. This new bill included the prohibition of using a hands-free device, had primary enforcement status and carried a fine of $300 plus points on the driver’s license. HB 257 met a similar fate to its predecessor HB 15 when it stalled out in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. The primary enforcement clause seemed to be what caused the most problems for the proposed law, and while the action was never taken to vote against the two bills, by 2010 they were for all intents and purposes considered dead.
In 2011-2012 the Alaska State Legislature was much busier discussing the issue of cell phone use while driving. At least four bills have been proposed in Juneau during this legislative session dealing with general cell phone use, and another bill that tackles the specific issue of texting while driving. With a different approach to the previously stalled bills, HB 22 would put a ban on handheld driving in Alaska but would still allow hands-free use. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Cathy Muñoz (R-Juneau) did, however, keep the status of primary enforcement. Similarly, HB 68 also proposed to ban handheld cell phone use, although the bill’s sponsor has said he will drop his proposal and instead support HB 22.
HB 35, a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Doogan (D-Anchorage) echoes HB 257 which he also sponsored. The bill would outlaw all cell phone use while driving, regardless of the driver’s age and would include both handheld and hands-free devices. Representative Doogan continued to push for primary enforcement, with the only exception being for emergencies. This proposal seems to have bottomed out, as no activity has been registered regarding it for over a year.
Alaska House Bill 128, the only bill dealing with general cell phone use while driving that is still currently active as of March 2012, echoes former HB 15 (2008-2009) and would ban all use of cell phones for drivers under the age of 18. If passed, this bill would take effect on July 1 of this year. The law would use secondary enforcement.
As for the laws regarding the general public (those over the age of 18), the resistance that previous bills experienced still exists with many members of the state legislature. While many of these politicians, as well as members of the general Alaskan population, may believe that the idea behind the bills would save lives and make the state’s roads safer, actually putting regulation into practice that would directly affect the way Alaskans live their lives is an entirely different story. With their fiercely independent nature, many people can’t seem to support legislation that would allow the state government to restrict their individual freedom. As a result, neither handset nor hands-free cell phone regulation legislation for drivers over the age of 18 has made significant progress in the Alaskan State Legislature.
Proposed legislation that has made at least some headway is the bill that aims to remove any and all ambiguity regarding text messaging while driving. Alaska House Bill 255, which is bipartisan legislation sponsored by State Reps. Les Gara and Bill Thomas, is a direct response to a ruling that the existing 2008 law is too vague and does not specifically mention the term ‘text messaging.’ This seems to echo what law enforcement officials were able to really follow through with, due to the fact that within the first six months following its induction, only three members of the Alaskan public had been ticketed for texting while driving.
The case in which the 2008 law was said to be too vague is currently undergoing an appeal process as of March 2012, however, this hasn’t stopped Alaskan state legislators from forging ahead with a new bill that would avoid the same or similar situation in the future. HB 255 bears the lengthy but all-encompassing title, “an act prohibiting the driver of a motor vehicle from reading or typing a text messaging or other non-voice message or communication on a cellular telephone, computer, or personal data assistant while driving a motor vehicle.” The bill is currently moving through the state legislature and has made it out of both the Transportation and Judiciary committees.
While the general discussion regarding ‘distracted driving legislation’ is still up for debate in Alaska, both in the legislature and with the state’s citizens, two significant aspects of the issue are now much closer to reaching fruition. With HB 128 and HB 255 moving further along the process to becoming state law, it appears that a ban on all cell phone use for drivers under the age of 18, in addition to a ban on text messaging for all drivers, may soon be on the books in Alaska.