Morgan Gibb became the first person cited by the Kenai Police Department for writing a text message while driving under a revision of the statute prohibiting that activity.
She may be the first person in the state to be cited under the revised law. Anchorage Police and State Trooper spokespersons say their officers have written no tickets for the infraction since the new wording went into effect on May 11.
The 20-year-old Kenai woman was issued a summons at on Memorial Day after being stopped by an officer on the Kenai Spur Highway.
The original statute came under a cloud when a judge ruled that it did not specifically address texting. Several legislators joined to sponsor the revision in the latest session, including Les Gara.
"The new law just reemphasized that we intended to include typing while driving," Gara said.
In most cases, a violation will be treated as a misdemeanor, Gara said. "No jail time, a fine of maybe $250 or $500, maybe community work service." Those were typical penalties for first-time offenders under the original law before it was called into question, he said.
"But if you hurt somebody, the penalties become significant," he said. The status of the crime can shift from a misdemeanor to a felony with a prison sentence.
"It's almost premeditated because if you get in a car knowing you'll be texting, you know in advance that you're going to be doing something dangerous," Gara said. "People have to understand that in a social setting it's fun, but doing it behind the wheel is like using a weapon. Even typing a short message, you'll drive the length of a football field without looking at the road."
Gara cited studies showing that the reaction time of a texter is actually slower than when the driver has been drinking, and drivers who are texting are 20 times more likely to get into an accident than those who are not.
"I would note that there's been a fatal accident in Anchorage tied to texting while driving," he added.
Police might see a motorist in the act of texting if they drive alongside them, said Kenai Police Department Lt. Dave Ross. But erratic driving is the main telltale sign.
"There's driving behavior that's indicative of a distracted or impaired driver," Ross said. "Crossing lane lines, speeding up and slowing down, making an overly-wide turn, nearly going in the ditch, not starting when the light turns green, not stopping for a stop sign."
Ross was awaiting the written report on the Gibb citation and could not provide details of that incident.
So what to do when you absolutely must text? Pull over, stop the car.
"The law only applies when your car's moving," Gara said.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News