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Public Safety Commission endorses distracted driving ordinance

Tuesday, August 5, 2014 by Gene Davis

Public Safety Commissioners got a preview Monday of recommendations to expand the city’s ban on texting while driving.

The recommendations from the Distracted Driving Working Group – formed by City Council in January via a resolution – propose banning the hands-on use of cell phones while operating a vehicle or bicycle. The proposed ban would also apply to drivers who are stopped, such as those waiting at a light or in traffic.

The briefing from Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Brian Manley, a working group member, came before Thursday’s Council meeting. Council members are scheduled to consider a resolution that directs City Manager Marc Ott to incorporate the recommendations into a draft ordinance by Aug. 28.

“Council has taken the recommendations swiftly and is looking to move forward with them,” Manley said.

Manley said working group members considered distracted driving laws across the country, public feedback, recommendations from the Public Safety Commission, and research when deciding on its set of distracted driving recommendations.

The recommendations propose allowing drivers and bicyclists the hands-on use of their cell phones to report an emergency or something illegal. The recommendations also propose allowing commercial drivers to use two-way radios.

Public Safety Commissioners greeted the recommendations with a fairly subdued reaction, as they had discussed the issue and shared their opinions in-depth at previous meetings. Citing the public safety risks of using cell phones while driving, Public Safety Commissioners were the driving force behind City Council forming the Distracted Driving Working Group. The city’s chief prosecutor said in February that drivers on their cell phones are 23 times more likely to be in a wreck than a driver who isn’t distracted

The only point of debate during Monday’s meeting on the issue came from Commissioner Kent Anschutz, who disagreed with the commission’s previous recommendation that the ordinance allow people to use their cell phones when stopped in their cars. Anschutz said he was not at that meeting and thought the ordinance should also apply to drivers who are stopped.

“That’s when many people get the most enraged, waiting behind some fool who is sitting there on their cellphone after the light turns green,” he said.

In response, Public Safety Commission Chair Kim Rossmo said that type of situation is more of an annoyance, whereas a driver who is texting while going down the road is a public safety issue.

Manley said the question of whether to ban drivers from using their cell phones while stopped was likely the most discussed issue during the working group meetings. He said that after consideration, the working group decided it should include stopped drivers in the proposed ban. However, the recommendations propose an exception to allow drivers to use their phones after they pull off the road and put their cars in park.

Council could change or choose not to adopt the working group’s recommendations, Manley said. If Council members adopt the expanded distracted driving ordinance, he said a public information campaign should be the priority.

“The goal is to get more voluntary compliance,” he said. “The goal isn’t writing more tickets.”

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