This New Year’s, Austinites not only bid farewell to 2009, but to texting while driving as well. As of January 1, 2010, drivers are only allowed to use their cell phones for making and receiving phone calls while operating a moving vehicle. Drivers have a 30-day grace period to adjust to the law, during which time Austin Police Department officers will be stopping and issuing warnings to suspected offenders.
According to APD Commander Steve Baker, as of today it is uncertain whether anyone has been pulled over for texting while driving in Austin because warnings are handwritten, with the data entry situation 30-60 days behind. Commander Baker has not received any complaints regarding the new legislation. The ban was proposed back in October 2009 by City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez over concern in the increased rate of
traffic accidents caused by the practice of texting while driving. Statistics show that texting and driving makes it 23 percent more likely that you’re going to be involved in a crash. Commander Baker compared texting and driving to drinking and driving, saying that it simulates a .12 to .15 blood alcohol level.
Most Austinites are in support of the ban because of the safety reasons. Dan Payne had been undecided, but changed his mind after riding in the front seat of a car with someone who would not stop texting. Although the new law is already in effect, some Austin drivers still have questions about what devices are allowed and enforcement of the new code. Austin drivers are prohibited from using a wireless communication device to view, send, or compose an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle. This includes text messages, emails, and accessing social media
sites. However, under the new city ordinance, drivers are allowed to check their text messages or update their Facebook status while the vehicle is stopped; this includes at a red traffic light or even while sitting at a standstill on IH-35 during rush hour traffic. Use of electronic messaging is also allowed to obtain emergency assistance, to prevent a crime from being committed, or if a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger.
The revised code allows the use of global positioning or navigation systems as long as the device is permanently installed in the vehicle. Drivers such as Ani Mirasol questions the exclusion of uninstalled devices. She often uses her phone with internal GPS for directions while driving places for work. Although it is not texting, it is still illegal under
this ban. “How is this any different from printing out MapQuest directions or looking at a map?,” she asks. Mirasol is also concerned about safety and accurate enforcement of the ban. “Now folks will be more likely to put their phones in their lap, out of view, to text, which seems more dangerous than having a phone at eye level.”
Since Jan. 1, officers are on the lookout for drivers slowing down, driving erratically, or looking down for extended periods of time. Enforcement will be performed on a case-by-case basis and officers will not be permitted to take away a person’s phone. APD is counting on people to voluntarily show what actions they are taking on their cell
phones. Starting Feb. 1, 2010, primary enforcement of the new ordinance will begin. Officers will be pulling people over they suspect are texting while driving and charging them with a Class C Misdemeanor offense, with
traffic fines as high as $200. While she is in support of the texting ban for safety reasons, Austin driver Christy Freeman wonders what the city will ban next. “Listening to music, eating, drinking, GPS units? They are all distractions that take our eyes off the road while driving and create potential hazardous conditions.”