Council to vote on ban on texting while driving

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Officers already have the authority to ticket drivers for a variety of dangerous behaviors, from speeding to aggressively changing lanes to following a vehicle too closely, Baker said. In some cases, those behaviors are caused by drivers absorbed in texting, he 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
safe driving distance between vehicles and bicycles but does not specify how far apart they must be.

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