Talking on a handheld cellphone while driving in an Anchorage school zone could now cost you a $500 fine

Talking on a handheld cellphone on or near school grounds while driving in Anchorage could now cost you.

The Anchorage Assembly at its Tuesday meeting passed an ordinance banning handheld cellphone use by drivers on school grounds or within a marked school zone. The ordinance wouldn’t apply if the vehicle is stopped, if the cellphone is being used with a hands-free device, or if it’s being used to call 911 for an emergency.

Handheld cellphone use while driving will be prohibited from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in school zones and on school grounds, every day of the year. Violating the law could mean a $500 ticket.

Alaska law prohibits texting while driving but doesn’t ban holding the phone to talk while driving. A bill the Legislature passed last year allows for municipalities to make their own rules regarding cellphone use near schools.

“I used to talk on my cellphone when I was driving ... but I would also complain about the idiots who were talking on their cellphones and driving poorly,” said Assemblyman John Weddleton, who submitted the ordinance. “Now I absolutely don’t talk on the cellphone when I’m driving. ... It is a problem, we all know it."

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

Between January 2017 and March of this year, the Anchorage Police Department made 54 citations to drivers who were using a screen device while driving, according to the ordinance. Four of those were in a school zone.

The ordinance was originally scheduled for a vote in early May, but it was postponed to this week’s meeting. Members voted 9-0 in favor of the law, with Assemblywoman Suzanne LaFrance excusing herself from the vote because of her employment with AT&T, and Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson absent.

The ordinance goes into effect 30 days after the Assembly’s approval.

The Assembly also voted 8-2 to adopt the Anchorage Climate Action Plan, which the municipality has spent months developing. The sweeping plan sets a goal for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 2008 levels by 2050, with an interim goal of 40% by 2030. It also calls for the city to create a system for monitoring impacts of climate change locally.

[Alaska experiencing some of the most extreme climate change in the U.S., says new report]

“I don’t believe that doing nothing is an option,” Assemblyman Christopher Constant said at the meeting. “And even if it’s a little, tiny thing, if a whole bunch of us do a little, tiny thing, big changes will come. It just might take some time.”

The plan does not change city policy or code. Rather, it gives the municipality a framework to guide its efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change across various sectors including land use and transportation, energy, urban forests and watersheds, and consumption and solid waste.

Assemblyman Fred Dyson and Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy, the body’s two representatives for Chugiak-Eagle River, were the dissenting votes.

About 20 people gave public testimony, all in support of the plan. No one spoke in opposition.

Former Gov. Bill Sheffield also testified, with a focus on the would-be benefits of reducing traffic by developing a commuter rail line connecting Anchorage and Wasilla.

Assembly members were set to vote on two ordinances related to regulations for on-site consumption of marijuana edibles at cannabis retail shops. Some members of the public testified on the subject, but the Assembly ran out of time late Tuesday and did not vote.

[Correction: This story originally stated that handheld cellphone use would be prohibited from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on school grounds or school zones on days when school is in session. It will actually be in effect during that time period every day.]