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Austin Council moves forward with ban on texting while driving

Friday, August 28, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

The Council unanimously approved a resolution Thursday that would prohibit driving a car and texting on a mobile communications device. The ban also covers other mobile device activities that don’t include GPS maps and actually speaking on the phone. The resolution also asks that a buffer zone for bicycle riders on roadways be included in the ordinance.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez introduced the resolution he sponsored along with Council Member Chris Riley, noting that the Public Safety Task Force took up the issue two years ago. “At the time it wasn’t extremely clear that texting while driving was as dangerous as some of us thought,” he said. Martinez said multiple studies since then have confirmed that “not only is it dangerous while driving it is probably the most dangerous thing you can do while driving,” saying motorists were 20 times more likely to crash while texting.


Despite what he called “common sense” not to text and drive, Martinez said such logic didn’t seem to resonate powerfully with drivers. He related a story that he had followed a car whose driver was texting the entire way from City Hall, across the bridge down First Street all the way to Ben White. He also said in June the city was on track to have 80 traffic fatalities this year. “To put it in another context, if 80 people were to die every year due to one single cause, I dare say this body would be doing everything it possibly could to prevent that from happening.”


Dr. Mason Jones testified in favor of such an ordinance and choked up as he told those in Council Chambers how his family had been at a complete stop and was rear ended by a young woman going 70 miles per hour while texting. The collision caused several fractures to the skull of his 3-year son, who had to be airlifted to the hospital. He said his son has since recovered.


There were some concerns from the community about enforcement and representatives from Texans for Accountable Government and the ACLU both spoke to council about that issue. Debbie Russell, president of the local chapter of the ACLU, said the problem wasn’t with civil liberties but with enforcement. She brought up a recent quote from an APD spokesman who said there were problems with enforcement of such an ordinance. Russell said other jurisdictions that have enacted such bans have also run into enforcement difficulties, and questioned whether Austin would be able to solve such an onerous problem. Russell suggested other solutions such as “peer pressure and education campaigns.”


APD Chief Art Acevedo said 70 percent of people would obey the law “just because that’s the nature of people.” He added that even having the law on the books would start a conversation about the dangers of texting while driving and thus benefit road safety. As for enforcement, the chief said, “Our officers would be able to enforce this by just watching someone. People are so inattentive…” Acevedo said it would be difficult to enforce the law against people who are able to hide their actions well, but that those who are intently tapping away at their phone would be more oblivious, and those were exactly the kind of potential dangers the ordinance would seek to curb.


The new ordinance would also create a “safe passing zone” for bicycles which Martinez called “critical” for Austin’s bicycling community, who often must use the roadway due to incomplete sidewalk infrastructure. Riley said 18 other states have similar rules, and called it a “very simple concept. Vulnerable users of the road need some… cushion of space.” He said he had been hearing criticism that it too, is not enforceable, which he acknowledged was difficult to do on a routine basis.


However, Riley said the primary audience was drivers, who hopefully would learn to “exercise better judgment.” He said other critics charged that cyclists did not follow the rules themselves. Riley said that most riders do tend to be courteous but added that if roads are perceived to be dangerous then “daredevil types” would make up a higher portion of bicyclists using the roadway. “If you can make the roads safer, I guarantee you, we’ll get a broader section of riders.”


Mark Stine with Bike Texas said his organization supported the ordinance, despite any enforcement problems. Stine stressed the city should also focus on an educational component to “establish a better safety culture.”


Council Member Randi Shade told the council that in a recent meeting with Acevedo she was told the city had more text-related accidents than DWIs now.


Council Member Sheryl Cole acknowledged the dangers of texting while driving but wanted to know whether the law would enable law enforcement to use the ordinance to pull over minorities for “pretext stops.” The legal department informed her that the reasons for all stops are required by state law to be documented and turned in.

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