Bill to limit cell phone use receives little support

Posted: Tuesday, April 09, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A call to ban hand-held cell phones while driving has been put on hold.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, received little support during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Monday. Chairman Norm Rokeberg said he doesn't plan to bring it up again for committee action.

''I think we have more important issues to take up,'' said Rokeberg, R-Anchorage.

If the committee does not act on the bill, it will die when the legislative session ends in May.

Lancaster said he introduced the bill because the increasing use of the phones creates a hazard on the roads. ''It's strictly a safety issue,'' he said.

But some members of the Judiciary Committee expressed skepticism about whether cell phones pose any more hazard than eating, talking to passengers and other common driver activities.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he's witnessed plenty of distracting behavior while standing on street corners waving campaign signs during election season.

''You see people putting on makeup, reading books, brushing their teeth,'' Meyer said.

And Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, said she found ''that boom box thing'' in other people's cars more distracting than cell phones.

No one from the public testified in support of the bill. A doctor, an amateur radio operator and a representative of AT&T Wireless opposed it.

Physician Joan Priestley of Anchorage called House Bill 295 ''nanny state'' legislation. ''Where does this stop?'' she asked, questioning whether outlawing radios, smoking and carrying passengers would be next.

Lancaster's aide, Justin Carro, said 450 to 1,000 fatalities nationally were attributed to cell phone use while driving, and for each of those accidents, there were 660 more causing property damage.

But Mark Loschky of AT&T Wireless said a University of North Carolina study showed a myriad of factors distract drivers, with cell phone use far less important than adjusting a radio or CD player or responding to distractions outside the vehicle.

Mary Marshburn of the Division of Motor Vehicles said there is a lack of good data on the issue, and no Alaska statistics. However, anecdotal information and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report indicate use of handsfree phones would not eliminate the safety problem.

Physically dialing the number on the phone is only one part of the distraction, she said. ''Second, and most important, is the fact that they must, in order to have a conversation, be actively engaged,'' Marshburn said.

Alaska State Troopers Capt. David Hudson said three existing statutes give officers tools to address distracted driving. They can charge people with reckless driving, negligent driving or failure to exercise due care if cell phone use or other inattentive behavior contributes to poor driving or an accident.

Neither Marshburn nor Hudson took a position on the bill.

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