Anchorage Assembly considers ban on handheld cellphone use by drivers in school zones

Talking on a handheld cellphone while driving on school grounds and in school zones may soon be illegal in Anchorage.

The Anchorage Assembly is set to vote on the issue Tuesday night. An ordinance proposed by former Assemblyman Eric Croft and current Assemblyman John Weddleton would create a $500 ticket for using a handheld cellphone or mobile device while driving on school property and in school zones marked with signs. The exceptions would be if the vehicle is stopped, the driver is using a hands-free device, or the phone is being used to dial 911 to make an emergency call.

The ban would extend from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on days that school is in session. In a prepared statement, Deena Bishop, the superintendent of the Anchorage School District, said the district prioritized safety and that the proposed law was a “move in the right direction.”

State and local law prohibits drivers from texting or using a screen device while the vehicle is in motion. That includes viewing social media and watching videos.

The law does not ban drivers from dialing and holding a cellphone while speaking, and using it for navigation.

Other states are more restrictive. At least eighteen states have banned all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

Weddleton said Alaska should join other states in adopting an outright ban. But until that happens, the restriction should at least apply to school zones, he said.

“The chaos at drop-off and pick-up times and at special events at schools are especially dangerous,” Weddleton wrote in a memo accompanying the ordinance. “Unpredictable students, school buses and lines of hurried parents driving are a bad mix.”

A state bill signed into law in August 2018 allows cities to regulate handheld cellphone use in school zones.

In Anchorage, police have written 54 tickets since January 2017 to drivers using a screen device while driving.

Of those, four occurred in a school zone, according to Croft and Weddleton’s ordinance.