The Assembly approved an ordinance, on second reading, to fine drivers with their hands on a cell phone and stripped an exemption for emergency personnel, cab, and delivery drivers. (Wikipedia)

On Tuesday (4-12-16), the Assembly revised a draft ordinance that would fine drivers – around $25 – caught with a cell phone or other device in their hands. The policy intends to reduce distracted driving and encourage hands-free use, through Bluetooth or voice technology.

Doug Osborne, chair of the Health Needs and Human Services Commission, said the group’s ordinance is pertinent given Sitka’s above-average number of bikers and walkers. “So we have these vulnerable roadway users that are driving and walking right around people that are driving at the same level of impairment as a .08 blood alcohol level.” Osborne told the Assembly.

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

The original ordinance exempted delivery drivers, cab drivers, emergency personnel and others using their phones for official business from complying with the new law. 

City Attorney Robin Schmid said those professional drivers are also exempt from the state’s anti-texting law and felt it was important that Sitka follow suit. “When you start tampering with someone whose whole job involves being in a vehicle as they’re driving, like delivery drivers, I would urge you step back on that. There’s going to be push back.”

But a few Assembly members took issue with the exemption lines. 

Aaron Swanson: As a freight or package deliverer, I know first hand that it doesn’t matter if you have it in this ordinance or not. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration already has laws prohibiting hands using cell phones. And our fines are considerably higher.

Bob Potrzuski: When you’re piloting a 4000 lb. vehicle down a public road, which I’ve often have been confronted with somebody driving towards me, they are not looking. They are looking at their lap. They’re texting. I don’t see this as a personal liberty to drive distracted.

 Fellow Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz made a motion to strike those exemption lines from the ordinance. It passed. And because this constitutes a “substantive change,” the Assembly must revisit the cell phone ban for a third reading at their meeting on April 26th before it can take effect.