Austin OKs text-message ban

Austin City Council unanimously passed a ban last week 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 November 2; instead, it will take effect January 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.

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.

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