JUNEAU -- The House Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that makes it a crime to text while driving, moving the popular measure to the Rules committee and a likely trip to the House floor.
The bill, presented to the finance committee by sponsor Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, was approved without opposition.
The measure, House Bill 255, doesn't address the driver who makes a call while behind the wheel and allows a driver to carry on a text conversation at a stop light or when pulled off on the side of the road.
Looking at mapping software on a device with a screen would remain legal, as would an electronic dispatch system in a truck or taxi. And the measure exempts operators of police, fire and ambulance vehicles, but only if their messaging is about crimes, health or safety.
For all others, texting while driving would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, though Gara said a first-time offender likely would not get more than a few days in jail. If texting results in an accident in which someone is injured, the bill would enhance the penalties for other violations that could be imposed, such as for negligent or reckless driving.
"You think texting is just a social thing? It's a dangerous thing. It's as dangerous as drunk driving," Gara told the committee. "If you text, in a four-second text message, you've just driven the length of a football field, but you're not paying any attention to the road."
Gara said about a third of all drivers admit to texting behind the wheel. And while texting isn't the only distraction, it's one that can be legislated against, he said.
"There are lot of things that distract people while they drive, but how do you define when a mother can turn around and yell at her kids while she's driving? How do you define when you can eat a sandwich when you drive? But you can define texting," Gara said.
Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said he would have liked to have seen a ban on phoning too.
"I've got a theory that people shouldn't be talking on cellphones when they're driving," Doogan said. He said he considered trying to add that provision to the bill, but took Gara's advice that such an amendment might jeopardize the entire measure.
"In the interests of not letting the perfect be an enemy of the good, I have decided not to do that and I'm going to support this piece of legislation," Doogan said.
Another supporter, Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said the first constituent message she received in Juneau last year came from a truck-driver who works the Dalton Highway.
"He felt his going to work now was more dangerous because people are using texting while they're driving," Costello said. "He felt that this bill would improve his work conditions."
Gara said legislators had believed the issue of texting while driving was settled in an earlier law passed in response to head-on collision in 2002 on the Kenai Peninsula that claimed the lives of an Anchorage couple, Bob and Donna Weiser. Their Jeep was struck by a pickup with a video screen on the dashboard. Troopers charged the driver of the pickup with murder, accusing him of watching a movie while driving.
The pickup driver denied the charge and a jury acquitted him, but the Legislature responded with a law making it illegal to watch a device with a screen. Gara said legislators believed that the ban included texting as well, but then in December a magistrate in Kenai ruled it didn't.
The introduction to the texting bill takes a swipe at the magistrate, saying the decision "is legally incorrect." But the measure goes on to resolve the matter in no uncertain terms, barring reading or typing a text message "or other nonvoice message or communication on a cellular telephone, personal data assistant, computer, or any other similar means capable of providing a visual display that is in the view of the driver in a normal driving position while the vehicle is in motion and while the person is driving."
Gara said he hoped the legislation was written broadly enough to include devices and technology that have not yet been invented.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 1-907- 500-7388.