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Martinez backs ban on cell phones while driving

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Council Member Mike Martinez told members of the Public Safety Task Force on Monday he is interested in more discussion of a possible ban on the use of cell phones while driving in Austin. Such a proposal, Martinez said, would help improve safety and reduce the number of traffic accidents.


Martinez’s remarks came after a presentation from a group of University of Texas advertising students outlining a proposed campaign against the use of cell phones while driving. The class project had been started after a conversation between a UT instructor and Assistant Police Chief David Carter on the dangers of driving distractions. The class presented samples of billboards and other ads they would like to use to convey the message that “when your car is in drive, everything else should be in park.”


The project has received a small amount of funding from the Greater Austin Crime Commission, and the instructor is seeking additional funding in hopes of launching the campaign citywide.


While the group presented information that a significant percentage of accidents were caused by distracted drivers, statistics from the Austin Police Department did not reinforce that conclusion. “Since 2004, when we gathered statistics regarding cell phone usage as a contributing factor…it stands at about 1 percent of all crashes,” said Assistant Police Chief Patti Robinson. “Out of 55,000 crashes, that’s not a lot to be looking at.”


But Martinez said his position on additional regulation on the issue would not require more information. “I think this is one of those issues where we’re probably not going to find hard-core empirical data to come to a conclusion,” he said. “I just feel like it’s one of those issues where your gut and your heart tell you it can only improve things. At some point I’d like to see this body make a recommendation to Council.”


So far, two Texas cities have approved cell phone bans while driving, but only in certain areas. The upscale Dallas suburbs of Highland Park and University Park have both banned the use of cell phones while driving in school zones.


Council Member Lee Leffingwell told the task force he is not prepared to take a similar step in Austin. “From my perspective, I would prefer the information campaign…to try to get people to abandon not just one habit, but all the others you’ve talked about,” he said, referring to other driver distractions such as eating or applying makeup. “I don’t think we could tackle an item like use of a cell phone ban without some really hard data to back that up, and I don’t think we have that.”

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