Proposed ban aims to curb cellphone use by drivers in school zones
It's already illegal to text and drive in Alaska, but soon Anchorage residents could be fined for just holding their phone while in the driver's seat in some areas.
The Anchorage Assembly introduced an ordinance Tuesday that would make it illegal to use a cellphone or other mobile communication device in active school zones, unless drivers are using a hands-free option.
People would be prohibited from dialing, typing, even holding a device in their hands while driving through active school zones; a crime that would carry a $500 fine.
Assembly members Eric Croft and John Weddleton introduced the ordinance. They say drivers distracted by cellphones is a problem across the country and here in Alaska.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop supports the ordinance and believes it would help keep children safe.
"It is just a reminder for us all to be safe, keep our eyes on the road, be alert," said Dr. Bishop. "We never know when kids are around. If a ball or a bike comes by, we know that our streets can be dangerous when we’re not paying attention."
David Wight is a Bowman Elementary School parent and former volunteer crossing guard.
"I experienced parents running the stop sign coming out of the parking lot, running the stop sign turning on Chinook and Gregory and it has to do with trying to multitask with a cellphone and doing that," said Wight.
He says what he saw motivated him to make a change.
Luckily Wight is well-connected; he currently serves on the board of directors for the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation and is a former president and CEO of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. He worked with state lawmakers last year to pass House Bill 333, which helped pave the way for cities in Alaska to make a cellphone ban in school zones possible.
Gov. Bill Walker signed the bill last September, allowing local assemblies to ban cellphone use in certain situations, a change from the previous statute that didn’t allow local governments to change traffic laws.
Ryan Olberding is a physical education teacher at Bowman Elementary who volunteers as a crossing guard. He says that, by Wednesday this week, he'd already seen three to five distracted drivers.
"They come up to the stop signs pretty quick and they got to slow down. If they are on the phone, there is no way they're going to be able see a little kid crossing the street," said Olberding.
Olberding says it’s important to take the time to give your full attention when kids are involved.
"You're supposed to be focused on driving and not focused on your phone. Just turn it off. There’s no text message or song that’s so important to put anybody’s life in danger, especially a student’s," Olberding said.
However, a 2012 study suggested that drivers who exhibit risky behavior would do so with or without a cellphone in hand. Science Magazine reported the data showed why cellphone bans don't work.
"Individuals who reported frequently using cell phones (sic) while driving were found to drive faster, change lanes more frequently, spend more time in the left lane, and engage in more instances of hard braking and high acceleration events," the study's abstract reads.
A municipal ban on cellphone use while driving is being challenged as unconstitutional in a Montana court, after a woman was pulled over and cited for having a cellphone in her right hand. The Havre Herald reported that arguments against the ordinance stated the law violated free speech and was overly broad.
The Anchorage Assembly will take up the issue at a future meeting, where it's expected to have a public comment period.
Janis Harper, Angela Krenzien and Jes Stugelmayer contributed to this report.
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