Alaska rewrites its texting law history

Alaska’s old and “ambiguous” texting & driving law is dead and buried.

Flag of Alaska for distracted driving news pageA state appeals court ruled this week that the 2008 law intended to ban text messaging while driving was poorly worded and ambiguous “at best.” It established “the crime of driving with a screen device operating.”

In 2012, legislators amended the Alaska distracted driving law to specify that a violation occurs when a driver is “reading or typing a text message.”

While the issue would seem to be moot in Alaska, the legal activity reflects continuing problems nationwide with the wording of the first wave of distracted driving laws. Many were written before smartphones made handheld Internet access ubiquitous.

The case involved a teenager’s 2011 texting & driving citation. The magistrate noted that the law’s wording never actually referred to “text messaging” but addressed “screen devices.”

A major component of the law, which remains in the wording, outlaws operation of a vehicle if a TV or video monitor is in full view of the driver.

Kenai magistrate Jennifer Wells’ 2011 rulings added to the heat on the old law, which already had been discarded and called ambiguous by a chief magistrate in another district.

The ruling left the Alaska distracted driving law in limbo in the same year that a young woman allegedly was texting when she hit and killed a pedestrian in Anchorage.

“It seemed we should fix it right away rather than have no law in place while we waited for lengthy litigation,” recalled state Rep. Les Gara, who sponsored changes to the statute (AS 28.35.161), along with Rep. Bill Thomas.

Gara, D-Anchorage, issued a press release Nov. 8 praising the appeals court decision.

“Without the 2012 law, Alaska would join only three other states without specific prohibitions on texting while driving,” Gara said.

The 2012 amendments to the statute became effective May 11, 2012.

The old distracted driving law focused on screens because it was inspired by a 2002 head-on crash in which the driver reportedly was watching a DVD. Lawmakers appeared to be divided over what to do about text on cell phones and PDAs.

Also coming into play in the case was an exemption for “verbal communication” (old law) and “voice communication” (new law), meant to protect use of cell phones for calls. (Alaska does not have a general ban on use of handheld cell phones.)

“As the magistrate found, the term “verbal communication” in this context is ambiguous and can refer to both spoken and written forms of communication,” the appeals court said in its texting & driving decision of Nov. 6.

The court noted that technology had changed since the original law was enacted, with smartphones yet to make much of an impact at the time.

Reviewing the original law’s legislative history, the court found “the decision to remove the express prohibition against ‘reading from the visual display on a portable cellular telephone or personal data assistant’ from the final bill suggests that the legislature ultimately decided to leave resolution of these issues for a later time.”

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