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Public Safety panel backs expanding city’s texting-while-driving ban

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 by Gene Davis

After hearing the city’s chief prosecutor say that drivers on their cell phones are 23 times more likely to be in a wreck than a driver who isn’t distracted, the Public Safety Commission approved a resolution Monday asking City Council to form a task force to consider expanding the city’s texting-while-driving ban.


Chief prosecutor Bianca Bentzin said the city ordinance should focus on banning distracted driving as a whole, not just texting. She said a hands-free law – which would make it illegal for a person to talk while holding the phone – is one option a task force should consider. Having an increased distracted driving penalty for younger drivers is another idea, she said.


“I know (a distracted driving law) is not very popular because people feel our phones have become such a part of our culture, and that’s true,” she said. “But at the same time, what we need in Austin is a law that gets eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.”


Bentzin referenced a number of studies showing the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. But despite the reported evidence of its dangers, Bentzin told commissioners that much of the public does not support banning the use of cell phones while driving.


“Unfortunately, people who drive think they have a sense of entitlement,” she said. “(They think) everything I shouldn’t be allowed to do I should be able to do anytime that I want to do it.”


Regardless of public support, multiple commissioners spoke in favor of expanding the texting-while-driving ban.


In addition to increasing safety, Commissioner Ramey Ko argued that a more defined law could help clarify civil liberties.


“Right now the law is written in such a way that because of its ambiguity, it’s very easy for a law enforcement officer to use that as a hook to stop and start an investigation,” he said.


Austin City Council approved the texting-while-driving ban in 2009. Bentzin said while the law was cutting edge when it was adopted, it is hard for police to enforce – drivers can claim they were dialing a number and not texting if pulled over – and newer mobile devices such as e-readers and tablets are not explicitly covered by the ordinance’s language.


Bentzin added that the current ordinance is also illogical. For example, it’s legal for someone to dial a 10-digit phone number but illegal to text “OK,” which takes less time, she said.


“What we are allowing as lawful is actually more dangerous than what is considered illegal,” she said.


The Austin Police Department, City Attorney’s office, and members of the public should be represented on a distracted driving task force, according to the resolution passed by the commission. The commission should be the first body that considers a draft ordinance when it’s written, Ko said.


As for anyone unsure of the need for distracted driving legislation, Bentzin said they should do their own personal research.


“If you are driving around, I encourage you to just look at other drivers, look at other cars, I guarantee you that every single person that is cutting you off or is quickly moving over to try to get to the exit is on their phone,” she said.

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