A local commission wants to crack down on mixing phones with cars in Sitka. They conducted a roadside survey last month that observed 21% of drivers distracted. (Photo courtesy of Her Campus Media)

At last night’s meeting (03-22-16), the Sitka Assembly debated a local ordinance to ban cellphone use while driving. Under this new ordinance, operating a cell phone at the wheel would be a finable offense. While the Assembly supported the policy, they raised questions about some of its finer details.

Downloadable audio.

We’ve all seen it: Sitkans driving with their cell phone cradled to their ear or thumb on the touch screen. You may even partake in the occasional stop light Facebook scan. It’s harmless, right?

“Wrong,” say Doug Osborne, chair of the Health Needs and Human Services Commission. “The reason why – if somebody is talking on a cellphone while driving it quadruples their chance for risk – is because their brain is trying to do two things and reaction times are slower and  field of vision is shorter and smaller,” he told the Assembly. “So we want to prevent an injury before it happens. Driving while talking on a cell phone contributes to crashes, contributes to deaths.”

See a draft of the 2016 Safe Streets – Focused Drivers Ordinance

The commission’s proposed ordinance would prohibit cell phone use while driving. “Use” is defined as holding or touching the phone while talking, e-mailing, text messaging, browsing the internet, playing a game, listening to music, or using GPS technology. And these rules apply when the vehicle is in motion and when stopped at a sign or a traffic light.

The commission has been working on this ordinance for a year and it was endorsed by the Police and Fire Commission last fall.

Speaking to the Assembly, Chief Sheldon Schmitt with the Sitka Police Department said that, if it went into effect, he wanted the fines to be pretty low – “in the range of $25 for a first offense.”

Schmitt felt that a lower fine would elicit less pushback from the community and potentially, create an opportunity to pay that money forward. “When we passed the seatbelt law, [the fine] was $15 and [violators] could donate that fine to the fire department. We’d like to do something similar,” he said.

Osborne disagreed. He said, “I’m more in the $75-$100 range because this is life and death.”

Last year, over two dozen drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians were treated at Sitka Community Hospital for injuries sustained during collisions. And in an observation survey of 265 drivers last month, Osborne’s commission saw 21% of motorists distracted in some way.

Describing the survey’s observations, Osborne said, “If they had one hand off the wheel and on something else, 85-90% of the time it was a cell phone. We did see a couple people eating. One guy was opening a package and somehow driving. So there’s lots of ways to be distracted, but I think this ordinance will take the bulk of it.”

With this ordinance, the commission’s goal is to cut the number of distracted drivers in half (to 10%). The document, called “Safe Streets – Focused Drivers,” is mirrored on a hands-free ordinance from Austin. The Texas law extends to bicyclists and fines up to $500.

Here is one of their PSAs.:

The ordinance was also shaped but Alaska’s state statute that prohibits texting while driving. Under that law, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, and emergency operators are exempt. City attorney, Robin Koutchak wants Sitka’s ordinance to do the same. “People that are required to use their phones or something similar to do their jobs were all exempted from the state texting law, so I thought that would really good and safe for us too,” she said.

And there’s one more exception: you won’t get fined if you use the phone in a “hands free mode of operation.” This language was too vague for assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz. He commented, “I’ve been led to believe that there is currently Alaska state statute that prevents you from wearing ear buds while you’re driving.”

Assembly member Tristan Guevin, who co-sponsored the ordinance, described it as “not perfect”, but felt that at the very least, it furthered public safety in Sitka. Guevin mentioned how he was standing on the street one day with the bill’s other co-sponsor, Ben Miyasato.

We’re standing there in front of Blatchley Middle School and someone comes out in a suburban, makes a left hand turn. They’re holding their cell phone. And don’t even miss a beat. The person coming down HPR has to slam on their breaks. They didn’t put their cell phone down.

Should drivers like this get caught in the future, they’ll be fined. But the ordinance does not lay out a fine structure. This troubled Eisenbeisz as well. He called the legal language “incomplete.” But he liked the notion that folks could pay off their fine through a donation and suggested the money go towards EMS. “Instead of people feeling like they’re being punitively taxed and that police are going to be simply pulling people over to raise revenue, [they’d feel that] their money might actually be doing some good there.” he said.

The conversation then turned to how much to charge people. Schmitt said it is preferable to leave that detail out of Sitka General Code. That would make it easier for his department to change it down the line. Assembly member Matthew Hunter found this reasonable. He said, “Cell phones are increasingly interrupting our otherwise happy lives. And it’s going to be a good start to make our streets safer, so.”

In the end, the Assembly approved the ordinance on first reading with four votes. Mayor Mim McConnell and assembly members Ben Miyasato and Bob Potrzuski were absent from the meeting. The Assembly also advised Schmitt to set that first offense fine at $25.

The ordinance will appear before the Assembly for a second and final reading likely at the meeting on April 12th.