Austin American-Statesman News Articles on Austin’s Texting While Driving Ban

Nov. 4, 2008 through Oct. 23, 2009

Panel wants texting ban for drivers

Hands-free devices also included in recommendation

Katie Humphrey

Publication Date: November 4, 2008  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

Hold the phone - at least for now.

The City of Austin's public safety task force approved a resolution Monday that could lead to a ban on texting while driving and a requirement that motorists use hands-free devices.

The resolution is a recommendation that the City Council ask City Manager Marc Ott and his staff to develop a proposal, vet it and bring it back to the council for consideration.

Council Member Mike Martinez, who is leading the effort, said he has received dozens of calls in recent months from motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists asking for such a law.

"It is something that needs to be done," Martinez said. "When you see accidents that have happened or you hear about near-misses, it is just a step we can take to ensure the safety of our citizens."

The Austin Police Department was unable to provide statistics Monday about wrecks in which text messaging contributed. That information is scarce because it's hard to tell whether drivers were using phones just before a crash unless they admit it or a witness is available, said Sgt. Richard Stresing, a department spokesman.

But any type of driving distractions, whether it's talking on a cell phone or putting on makeup, can lead to wrecks, he said.

Debbie Russell, a task force member and president of the Central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said she was concerned about criminalizing another behavior.

Traffic laws already address erratic driving, she said.

"There are a lot of distractions in the car," Russell said. "Just because this is the newest one ... doesn't mean we have to create a crime for this distraction."

Seven states - Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia - have enacted laws that prohibit text messaging for all drivers. Text messaging while driving also is banned in Washington, D.C.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said laws that ban texting or restrict cell phone use are well-intentioned but are not always effective because drivers don't think they will be enforced.

A study that the institute conducted in North Carolina found that teen drivers actually used cell phones more after a ban was enacted than they did before, he said.

khumphrey@statesman.com; 445-3658

Additional material from staff writer Tony Plohetski.

Ban on texting drivers mulled

Council also to discuss 3-foot buffer for cyclists, others

Sarah Coppola

Publication Date: August 25, 2009  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Driving while text messaging and driving within three feet of cyclists would be banned under a proposal the Austin City Council will consider Thursday , though police say the ideas might be tough to enforce.

Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley and Mayor Lee Leffingwell are proposing to prohibit writing, sending and reading text messages, instant messages and e-mails, as well as viewing the Internet on a cell phone or other portable electronic device while driving a vehicle or bicycling.

They also want to require a three-foot distance between vehicles and "vulnerable road users," such as cyclists, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. Either party - the driver or other road user - could be ticketed for failing to keep that distance, Martinez said.

The violations would likely be Class C misdemeanors, which carry a fine of up to $500 and can be appealed in Municipal Court. The changes aim to improve public safety and bring more public awareness to dangerous driving behaviors, Martinez said.

"We've lost sight of the responsibilities that come with operating on a roadway," he said. "In a city like Austin, which has some of the most congested roads in the country, the last thing we need to be doing is reading e-mails while driving."

City officials said the texting ban might be the first such citywide ban in Texas. If the council approves the policies at its Thursday meeting, city staffers would draft rules that the council would have to vote on before enactment. That process would take at least two months, Martinez said.

Martinez began floating the idea of a local texting ban last year but said he wanted to see how bills fared at the state Legislature first. More than a dozen bills addressing cell phone use while driving failed during this year's legislative session, he said. One that survived - prohibiting cell phone use in school zones - will take effect Sept. 1 , but some cities are questioning whether they must enforce it. Austin plans to enforce it and install about 750 signs related to the school-zone ban - at an estimated cost of $80,000 - within a year, starting this fall.

Martinez said he's interested in enacting a ban on cell phone use while driving - an idea he suggested last year - but said the issue needs more debate. There is clearer data to show that texting while driving poses a danger, he said.

A report released last month by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and cited by Martinez found that when truck drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when they weren't texting. The study, financed with $300,000 from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration , involved outfitting the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras over 18 months .

The Austin Police Department does not have statistics on wrecks that might have been caused by text messaging, said Donald Baker , commander of the highway enforcement division. He said the ban could be tough to enforce. Officers would either have to catch a driver texting or rely on driver and witness accounts if a wreck occurred, he said.

"If someone was texting and they had the phone down low and nobody saw them, how do you know they are in violation? Human nature is that the driver isn't going to admit it to the officer," Baker said.

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said laws restricting cell phone use aren't always effective because drivers don't think they will be enforced. The institute conducted a study in New York state that found that drivers' handheld cell phone use dropped immediately after a ban took effect in 2001 and then returned to pre-ban levels a year later. "When the publicity died down, drivers seemed to go back to their old habits," he said.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia prohibit texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association , which represents highway safety agencies nationwide. Spokesman Jonathan Adkins said texting bans pose enforcement problems because officers find it difficult to spot and confirm texting, especially at night, and have trouble proving it if tickets are appealed.

Debbie Russell of the Central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said creating a public awareness campaign about the risks of texting would be more effective than outlawing it. The ban would single out one dangerous driving behavior, even though others - such as eating and applying makeup - can be just as distracting, she said.

Council Members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison said they plan to vote for the ban but are concerned that it might be difficult to enforce.

Martinez said he thinks that most drivers would comply and that having a law in place would make people more aware of the risks of texting. Leffingwell said it likely would take awhile for the public to get used to the ban, just as it took time for seat belt laws to gain public acceptance.

Baker said state law already requires a "safe driving distance" between vehicles and bicycles but does not specify how far apart they must be. The Austin proposal would require a three -foot distance, the central aim of a bill that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed this year.

Eighteen other states have laws requiring a minimum distance between vehicles and bicycles, said Robin Stallings of the Texas Bicycle Coalition . Other Texas cities are considering such a rule, but none has enacted one, he said.

Leffingwell said three feet would be a reasonable buffer to create a safer environment for the growing number of Austin cyclists.

Currently, about 1 percent of Austin's work force bikes to work. In June , the City Council passed a long-term plan aimed at finishing Austin's network of bike paths and making biking safer. There were 315 bike-vehicle crashes in Austin last year, one of them fatal, according to police.

"One of the reasons people don't bike is they think it's unsafe," said Lane Wimberley of the League of Bicycling Voters , a biking advocacy group in Austin. "This would put some teeth in the (existing) 'safe passing' law."

Baker said it could be difficult to enforce a three-foot rule in dense urban areas, such as downtown, which during rush hour is clogged with cars, bikes and buses.

The new rule "is not going to be the end-all, be-all of safety for pedestrians or cyclists," Martinez said. "But creating a buffer zone will make people think about how safely they're driving and who they're sharing the road with."

scoppola@statesman.com; 912-2939

Driver texting ban advances

City Council approves concept, but writing, enacting actual ordinance could take months

Sarah Coppola

Publication Date: August 28, 2009  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

The Austin City Council unanimously agreed Thursday to establish a ban on text messaging while driving and to require a three -foot driving distance between vehicles and other road users, such as bicyclists and pedestrians.

The rules won't take effect right away. First, city staffers will write an ordinance that the council must approve, a process that could take a few months.

Each violation would be a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 and can be appealed in Municipal Court.

A few council members and speakers expressed concerns at Thursday's council meeting that the policies would be tough for police to enforce. They also stressed that the texting ban must be coupled with a strong public education campaign to be effective.

"We see time and again that laws like this are not the best way to change people's behavior," said Debbie Russell of the Central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "If we're not dedicating any money for public education along with this, it will fail."

Council Member Mike Martinez , the lead proponent of the texting ban, said he would look carefully at those issues before the ordinance comes back to the council for a vote.

There might be some challenges with enforcement, he acknowledged. But he said the ban is worth enacting because studies have shown overwhelmingly that texting behind the wheel is dangerous and must be curtailed.

"You're 20 times more likely to get into an accident texting while you're driving," Martinez said. "While it may seem like common sense not to text while driving, it doesn't seem to resonate."

Council Member Bill Spelman asked whether the ban would apply to police officers, who have computers in their patrol cars.

Police Chief Art Acevedo said that the ban would most likely exempt officers but that he encourages officers to use the computers only while stopped at red lights.

The ban would prohibit writing, sending and reading text messages, instant messages and e-mails, as well as viewing the Internet on a cell phone or other portable electronic device while driving a vehicle or bicycling.

City officials said the text­ing ban might be the first such citywide ban in Texas. Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia prohibit texting while driving.

scoppola@statesman.com;

912-2939

Council to vote on ban on texting while driving

Ordinance would allow use of devices in emergencies

Sarah Coppola

Publication Date: October 14, 2009  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Austin City Council members will vote next week on an ordinance that would prohibit text messaging while driving. If approved, it might be the first such citywide texting ban in Texas, officials said.

Drivers could still text while a vehicle is stopped. But the ordinance would ban writing, sending or viewing electronic messages on a cell phone, BlackBerry, iPhone or any other wireless communication device while driving. Electronic messages would include text messages, e-mails, posts on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and "a command or request to access an Internet site," according to a draft of the ordinance.

The ban would exempt the use of navigational systems or wireless devices permanently installed in a vehicle; texting because a life is in danger or to report a traffic accident or a medical emergency or to prevent a crime; and police officers, firefighters and paramedics who use wireless devices on duty.

"The data is clear and compelling about how dangerous it is to text and drive," said Council Member Mike Martinez , the measures's lead sponsor. "This ordinance isn't about going out and giving a lot of tickets. It's more about improving road safety through awareness" of the dangers of texting behind the wheel, he said.

A report released in July by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when truck drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater.

A violation would be a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 and can be appealed in Municipal Court. That penalty could increase if a driver is texting and committing other traffic violations, such as speeding, Martinez said.

The council unanimously approved the idea of a ban in August , but city staffers needed time to write actual rules. If council members pass the ordinance Oct. 22, it would take effect about a month later, Martinez said.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have texting-while-driving bans. A state law that took effect in Texas last month prohibits cell phone use in school zones. Austin and several other area cities, including Pflugerville, Round Rock and San Marcos, have erected signs and are enforcing that law, though some other cities have questioned whether they must enforce it.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said a texting ban would be redundant because laws already exist that prohibit dangerous driving behaviors. A public awareness campaign about the risks of texting while driving would be more effective, said Debbie Russell , president of the Central Texas chapter of the ACLU of Texas. The ban could also be tough to enforce, she said.

"How do you distinguish between someone texting versus just looking at their phone or dialing a phone number?" she said.

Before the August vote, some council members expressed concerns about whether the ban could be enforced effectively.

Council Member Sheryl Cole said Tuesday that the ban will be tough to enforce but is worth enacting to bring attention to the dangers of texting behind the wheel.

Donald Baker , commander of the Austin Police Department's highway enforcement division, said officers will use common sense to enforce the law and look for drivers who are obviously texting. Whether a driver was texting because of an emergency will be up to the officer's discretion, he said.

Police probably would issue warnings for the first few days the ban is in effect, Baker said. Martinez said the city is not planning an advertising campaign about the new ordinance but will enlist the media's help in making the public aware of it.

Officers already have the authority to ticket drivers for a variety of dangerous behaviors, from speeding to aggressively changing lines to following a vehicle too closely, Baker said. In some cases, those behaviors are caused by drivers absorbed in texting, he said.

The ban "will allow us to stop (texters) before they engage in other dangerous driving behaviors," Baker said.

Police patrol cars have wireless computer systems that allow officers to receive and respond to emergency dispatchers via written messages, Baker said. The department has no policy against typing messages while driving, but officers are trained to be aware of the hazards of doing so, he said.

Paramedics and firefighters also have computers in their vehicles, but they mostly punch buttons rather than writing out messages to respond to calls, and they ride with others who can tend to the computers, spokespeople for those departments said.

Another safety-related ordinance up for a vote Oct. 22 would require a three -foot distance between vehicles and "vulnerable road users," such as cyclists, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. An existing state law requires a safe driving distance between vehicles and bicycles but does not specify how far apart they must be.

scoppola@statesman.com; 912-2939

City OKs text-message ban

Beginning Jan. 1, texting while driving will be prohibited

Sarah Coppola

Publication Date: October 23, 2009  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

The Austin City Council unanimously passed a ban Thursday on text messaging while driving, though a few speakers raised concerns that the ban is too broad and urged council members to spend more time refining it.

The ban was supposed to take effect Nov. 2 ; instead, it will take effect Jan. 1. Council Member Mike Martinez suggested the delay, saying it will give the public and city commissions more time to review and suggest tweaks to the ordinance. He also asked city staffers to use the time to conduct an educational campaign about the ban.

Drivers will still be able to text when their vehicle is stopped. The ordinance will prohibit writing, sending or viewing electronic messages on a cell phone, BlackBerry, iPhone or any wireless communication device while driving. Electronic messages include text messages, e-mails, posts on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and "a command or request to access an Internet site."

The ordinance exempts placing a phone call, using a navigation system or a wireless device permanently installed in a vehicle and texting in emergency situations. It also exempts public safety personnel who use wireless devices while on duty. Drivers could still use a voice-activated mode on their wireless devices to send messages.

Violations will be Class C misdemeanors, which carry a fine of up to $500 and can be appealed in Municipal Court. The penalty could be increased if a driver is caught engaging in another dangerous driving behavior, such as speeding.

Chip Rosenthal , chairman of the city's community technology and telecommunications commission , asked council members before the vote to take more time to review and revise the ban.

"I think the language before you will have unintended and unanticipated consequences," he said. "The scope is so much wider than just a ban on texting."

He said the language could potentially ban actions that drivers can do safely, such as glancing down at an electronic note or using Pandora, an Internet radio service.

Debbie Russell of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union questioned why public safety employees would be exempt, saying texting while driving poses the same risks for them. She added that the ban could be tough to enforce and may lead to intrusive searches of wireless devices as police or prosecutors gather evidence against violators.

Council Members Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman suggested postponing the item two weeks to give city commissions more time to review it. Their motion failed and the council passed Martinez's proposal on the ban now but delayed the effective date to January.

Martinez noted that the ban has been in the works for two years, since he first proposed it during meetings of a public safety task force.

The ban, he said, "is not about enforcement or revenue generation. It's about safety and awareness."