Fatal crash leads to legislation that regulates DVDs, TVs in vehicles

Bill bans movies while driving

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2006

Watching a DVD movie on a television monitor while steering your car down the highway may defy common sense but apparently it isn’t against Alaska law.

Not yet, that is.

A bipartisan group of Alaska House lawmakers is backing a bill to accomplish what only seems logical to supporters — permit the state to punish folks who are so irresponsible as to drive while viewing TV screens.

The bill’s prime sponsor is Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg, who submitted the bill last year, largely in response to the loss of friends in a Seward Highway accident in 2002 in which the driver of another vehicle was allegedly watching a DVD movie at the time. The driver was later acquitted of those charges.

Gruenberg said Friday he hopes to have the bill scheduled for the House floor perhaps as early as this week.

“I would think it would pass,” he said. “I don’t think folks would vote against it.”

Gruenberg said watching a screen while driving does currently violate a regulation. his bill would raise the activity to a misdemeanor or felony depending upon circumstances. It was drafted based on bills promoted by the manufacturers of DVD players who are concerned about misuse of the devices, he said. The bill may not cover all contingencies regarding display devices, but it would be a good law, he said.

“No bill is perfect,” he said, adding that the only arguments he’s heard against it included suggestions that state law can’t make people act responsibly. “But then, why have any laws? That (argument) logically fails,” he said.

If adopted as is, the bill would make it a criminal offense to drive while watching televisions, monitors, portable computers and similar devices. It also would make it an offense to have a monitor or visual display operating that could be seen by a driver while the vehicle is under way, and makes it illegal to install or alter equipment making it visible to a driver.

The bill would not apply to portable cellular telephones, equipment displaying audio information and controls, common dashboard displays of a vehicle’s speed, fuel level and battery charge, navigation or global positioning information, maps or other visual data meant to enhance or supplement a driver’s view forward, behind or to the sides of vehicles. Nor would it apply to certain equipment installed in authorized emergency vehicles.

The bill would make it a Class A misdemeanor to violate the law, but would raise the severity of the charge to various levels of felony if the violation led to an accident that caused injury or death.

An accident near Bertha Creek on the Seward Highway on Oct. 12, 2002, resulted in charges that the driver of one of the vehicles had been watching a DVD on a monitor while driving. An Anchorage couple, Robert Weiser, 60, and Donna Weiser, 56, traveling in the other vehicle died.

In August 2004, a Kenai jury exonerated Kenai resident Erwin Peterson Jr., then 29, of second-degree murder charges, finding him not guilty of watching an in-dash movie screen while driving, but the incident helped spark efforts to make it illegal to watch monitors while driving and to have such monitors visible from the driver’s seat.

The measure is House Bill 12.

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