Soldotna council strengthens code on using phone while driving

Motorists making their way through Soldotna can now be found in violation of the city’s code for using their phones for anything other than an actual voice call.

The Soldotna City Council unanimously enacted an ordinance at its Wednesday meeting to strengthen its code pertaining to phone use while driving. The code will be amended to classify “the use of electronic screen devices while driving as a minor offense,” according to the ordinance text. The definition of using such devices was also changed to be more inclusive of more actions.

The issue came forward, according to Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik, when a police officer pulled over a driver recently for using a phone while driving. The driver had been searching for music to play on the phone, Mlynarik said, and was therefore able to fight the ticket in court because neither state law nor city code expressly define searching for music as illegal.

According to state statute, a person commits a crime if “the person is reading or typing a text message or other nonvoice message or communication on a cellular telephone, personal data assistant, computer, or any other similar means capable of providing a visual display that is in the view of the driver in a normal driving position while the vehicle is in motion and while the person is driving.”

The state law does not prohibit speaking on the phone while driving, and neither does Soldotna city code.

“Through the process of talking to our attorney, and the court process … which we lost, we found out that … since that wasn’t explicitly prohibited, that wasn’t included,” Mlynarik told the council. “So we wanted to try to … have the code capture a definition that was inclusive of anything having to do with operating a screen device other than talking on it and using it as a phone.”

The amended city code expands the definition of using an electronic screen device to encompass things that are not strictly tied to communication but are still distracting, like searching for music.

A driver commits the offense if they are driving a vehicle on a public street or highway and “using an electronic screen device for purposes other than verbal communication,” according to the ordinance.

“Basically this new rewrite says any time that you’re operating a screen device, other than for these exceptions, is evidence that you are operating in violation,” Mlynarik said. “Because our take on this is any time you’re not focused on the road in front of you and you’re looking down and texting, or looking at music or anything is dangerous, and we’re seeing more and more of this, where there’s distracted drivers.”

Nine people are killed every day in the United States due to accidents caused by distracted driving, which includes texting, talking on a phone or eating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exemptions to the code include considerations for emergency vehicles and built in screen devices in vehicles made for navigation, music playing, etc., he said.

When a police officer writes someone up for a driving violation, they can write the ticket under the state statute or under the city’s code, Mlynarik said. If a ticket is written up under Soldotna’s code, Soldotna gets the money from the fine associated with the violation. The fine for using an electronic screen device while driving is $250, according to the ordinance.

One member of the public gave testimony before the council voted on the ordinance, and said he was in favor of strengthening the code.

Reach Megan Pacer at meagn.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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