Alaska clarifies law against texting and driving

In Alaska and across the country, distracted driving has been receiving considerable attention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been trying to address the problem of distracted driving by educating drivers about the dangers of using a cellphone or texting while operating a motor vehicle.

The agency’s efforts are certainly needed. NHTSA data shows that in 2010, 3,092 people died in car accidents where a distracted driver was involved. About 416,000 more people were injured that year in distracted driving accidents.

Distracted driving is more dangerous than most people realize. The NHTSA also points out that in the time it takes a driver to send or review a text, a car going 40 miles per hour would travel the length of a football field — essentially blindfolded. A driver who is texting is at 23 times greater risk for crashing than drivers who are not distracted.

The evolution of Alaska distracted driving laws

Alaska responded to concerns about distracted driving after an Anchorage couple died in a fatal car accident in 2002. The driver who hit them was accused of watching a movie while driving. The legislature enacted a law that went into effect in 2008, specifically prohibiting drivers from using portable computers, monitors, televisions and any video screens in a driver’s field of vision. During the first six months after the law went into effect, only three drivers were cited for violations.

Then, law enforcement agencies attempted a campaign to educate drivers about the risks of texting. At that point, lawmakers were not willing to go further and place any outright bans on using cellphones while driving, largely out of a fear that such a proposal would be very unpopular with Alaska voters.

The 2009 and 2010 legislatures considered banning teenage drivers from using cellphones, but no law resulted. Legislators debated whether cellphone use should be a primary offense, giving a reason by itself for police to pull a driver over and issue a ticket, or a secondary offense requiring that the police stop the driver for some other reason.

In the 2011 and 2012 legislative session, several cellphone bills were considered, including the teen cellphone use ban, but none have been enacted. What the legislature did do in that recent session was to clarify the 2008 law, after a judge noted that the law did not specifically rule out the use of a cellphone to send and receive texts. The bill to revise the law to forbid texting cleared the legislature and has been signed into law by the governor.

Whether or not Alaska law forbids cell phone use, a driver who operates a vehicle negligently and injures someone should be held liable for their actions. An experienced personal injury attorney can pursue a claim to recover medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering damages for someone who is hurt by a negligent driver.

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