Legislature(2011 - 2012)BELTZ 105 (TSBldg)
04/13/2012 08:00 AM JUDICIARY
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HB 255-READING OR TYPING MESSAGE WHILE DRIVING 9:55:37 AM CHAIR FRENCH announced the consideration of HB 255, "An Act relating to screen devices in motor vehicles; prohibiting the driver of a motor vehicle from reading or typing a text message or other nonvoice message or communication on a cellular telephone, computer, or personal data assistant while driving a motor vehicle; and providing for an effective date." He asked for a motion to bring the bill before the committee. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI motioned to bring HB 255 before the committee. 9:56:05 AM REPRESENTATIVE LES GARA, sponsor of HB 255, stated that in 2008 the Legislature passed a bill that was thought to prohibit texting while driving. However, in the last year several judges have said the bill wasn't written with enough specificity to include texting. HB 255 fixes the problem by reinstating the ban on texting, and extending it to include other nonvoice communication devices that may come along as technology evolves. The six co-sponsors believe it is important to have a texting law on the books because texting while driving is more dangerous than any other type of cellphone conduct. Information in the packet shows that a driver who texts a 4.6 second message will travel the length of a football field without paying attention to the road. A car and driver study indicates that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a driver who is texting is 20 times more likely to cause a crash or near collision compared to times when that driver is not texting. The AAA Foundation on Traffic Safety found that while one-third of people text while they drive, ninety-four percent of the respondents said they recognize that texting is dangerous. The public recognizes this behavior is dangerous and supports regulation, he said. He described two texting-related accidents; one was in Fairbanks and the other in Anchorage. A person who violates this law is guilty of a class A misdemeanor, although drivers with a clean record have generally been sentenced to community service or a fine rather than jail time. However, a driver who was texting and driving drunk was sentenced to the mandatory three days in jail for drunk driving. Another person failed to appear in court two times and was sentenced to one day in jail. The original bill provided that a person who violates this law and causes injury to another person is guilty of the next level of crime. The reasoning was that it is close to premeditated for a driver to enter a car knowing he or she will engage in dangerous behavior. HB 255 maintains that sentencing scheme. The original bill made an accommodation for personnel in emergency vehicles to use display devices that are attached to the dashboard. To accommodate the prevalence of wireless devices, that provision was amended to clarify that police, fire, or emergency medical personnel may use a screen device that is attached or not "if the user reasonably believes the information on the device is necessary to respond to a health, safety, or criminal matter." REPRESENTATIVE GARA said the only criticism he's heard is that there are other behaviors that distract drivers like eating, drinking coffee or yelling at the kids. He said he didn't know how to write a law to say when it is and is not okay to do those things, but he did know how to write a law that says you can't text while driving. He noted that the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has taken on texting and cellphones as her new issue. He said it's not possible to address cellphone use this session due to diverging opinions among legislators, but it is possible to address texting because people can agree that it is dangerous. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said he's been asked why this isn't prosecuted under the negligent driving or distracted driving statutes, and the answer relates to the statistic that shows that one-third of drivers text while driving. Those people will be on the jury, which would make it very difficult to get the unanimity needed for a conviction. If the jury instruction says, "Was the person texting while driving?" the jury will have to answer yes and the defendant will be convicted. He concluded that a texting law is needed and most states already have one. 10:05:43 AM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI reviewed the language in Section 2, page 1, line 14 through page 2, line 2, and observed that the new language appears to include not only texting but also communicating while a screen device is operating. REPRESENTATIVE GARA clarified that was the name of the crime, not the elements. The elements of the crime are on page 2, lines 3-11. Paragraph (1) is the existing statute and paragraph (2) contains the new language. He noted that the word "computer" was inserted because the Chair reported an incident of someone typing on a laptop while driving. CHAIR FRENCH recounted the incident and said, "I flipped my lid." REPRESENTATIVE GARA read the new language in paragraph (2). (2) the person is reading or typing a text message or other nonvoice message or communication on a cellular telephone, personal data assistant, computer, or any other similar means capable of providing a visual display that is in the view of the driver in a normal driving position while the vehicle is in motion and while the person is driving. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if surfing the Internet while driving would be a crime under this language. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said yes; to surf the Internet a person has to push the keys and that is typing. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI continued to question whether the new language would cover surfing the Internet. REPRESENTATIVE GARA responded that the person is reading. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if reading applies to text messaging only. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said reading applies to anything on the computer or personal data device. "We don't want you reading while you're driving," he said. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI said he wasn't disagreeing, but he didn't necessarily interpret the language that way. "It'll be good to get some language on the record about what we're outlawing here," he said. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said reading is probably well covered in the first section, which is current law, but it's also intended to be covered in the new section. "It's just reading a text or other nonvoice message or communication and that's what you're doing when you're surfing the net." 10:09:19 AM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI posed a hypothetical situation of a driver getting lost and typing an address into map quest. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said that would be fine, and added that the original bill included a list of exceptions. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI again asked about typing in an address. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said it does not apply to equipment that displays navigational or global positioning or maps. It would be okay to type in an address on an iPhone. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked about looking up a name on a cellphone. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said that's fine and even unlocking a cellphone is acceptable. He directed attention to page 2, line 18. "It is not a crime if you're using your portable cellular telephones or personal data assistants being used for voice communication..." He opined that typing in the code and phone number is for a voice communication, and all forms of cellphone talking is exempt with the understanding that other bills address that issue. CHAIR FRENCH noted that Lieutenant Dial with the Department of Public Safety and Doug Moody with the Public Defender Agency were available to answer questions. SENATOR PASKVAN warned that it may not be a crime to drive 60 miles an hour and look at a navigational or global positioning device, but a person will be held responsible if he or she does that and hurts someone. There's a clear distinction between it not being a crime and the responsibility for reasonable and acceptable conduct while driving, he stated. REPRESENTATIVE GARA agreed that a person would still fall under the negligent and reckless driving statutes for reckless use of those exceptions. CHAIR FRENCH confirmed that reckless driving is still a crime in Alaska and noted that he was reviewing the elements of that crime. SENATOR PASKVAN observed that those were criminal statutes and he was referring to civil liability. He emphasized that a person will be held responsible if he or she kills someone while driving. Taking your eyes off the road to look at map quest because you're lost will not be an excuse. Some people think it's acceptable to drive 60 miles an hour and hit someone, but they're wrong. They will be held responsible. REPRESENTATIVE GARA responded that the sponsors have that same understanding. The bill does not exempt civil liability for negligent conduct. If a person is negligent and hurts somebody, the rule is "You broke it, you fix it." 10:13:30 AM SENATOR COGHILL asked if the purpose of the phrase "any other similar means" on page 2, line 9, is to accommodate future technology. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said yes; today an iPhone is a personal data assistant but the iPhone 5 may be called something different. The intent is that if it's got a screen and a person can type on it and read it, then it's a similar means. SENATOR COGHILL observed that it's a visual distraction, and the bill is trying to say that visual distractions, excluding the exceptions, will generally be a primary crime. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said yes. 10:14:35 AM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if using Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) would be a violation. REPRESENTATIVE GARA replied it is not a crime to voice text, and the Department of Law has given assurance that it will not prosecute those cases where it isn't possible to tell whether the voice text application was open, because that's not a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This will change as technology advances, but that capability isn't available today. SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if a "normal driving position" included turning to look at an iPhone that's located on the passenger seat. "I would think that we would want that covered, but it's just clarifying for the record," he said. 10:16:51 AM REPRESENTATIVE GARA explained that the terminology in paragraph (2) prohibits texting or using other nonvoice messaging while driving. It is intended to disallow the argument that the driver had one eye on the road. Normal driving position means the driver is driving and his or her full attention is on the road. CHAIR FRENCH closed public testimony. Finding no further committee discussion, he asked the will of the committee. 10:18:32 AM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI moved to report CS for HB 255, version T, from committee with individual recommendations and attached fiscal note(s). CHAIR FRENCH announced that without objection CSHB 255(JUD) moved from the Senate Judiciary Standing Committee.