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No Talking While Driving

City of Austin considers banning all cellphone use while driving

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News_Driving and texting_Feb 10
City of Austin considers banning all cellphone use while driving.  Photo by Jason Weaver

A city-commissioned research group says that in order to make Austin roads safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, drivers need to put down the phone for good.

The Distracted Driving Study Group was created in February by City Manager Marc Ott, under direction of the Austin City Council. On Monday, the group released its recommendations, suggesting the City expand its current ban on texting while driving to include all cellphone use. Under the group's suggestion, it would be illegal to make phones calls, view traffic maps or use any other phone applications, but hands-free devices would still be allowed.

A memo from Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald stated the group's recommendation:

The Working Group recommends the City Council strengthen the current texting while driving ordinance to a hands free ordinance. The new ordinance should make it illegal to 'use' a portable electronic device ... by hand while operating a motor vehicle or bicycle in an active travel lane. 

Members of the DDSG come from various City of Austin departments, including the Public Safety Commission, the Austin Police Department and others. The group also considered input from a public survey. CultureMap spoke with Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley, who participated in the group, and stressed that the expanded ban on cellphone use while driving is still only a recommendation. There’s no guarantee that changes will be made to the current ordinance.

“The mayor and City Council have all options open to them now. They may choose to pick it up and have a series of public input meetings, but in the end they may look at these recommendations and feel like the current ordinance with texting may still be enough,” says Manley.

He states that the expanded ban would clarify how officers can enforce the cellphone ordinance and improve public safety overall. “The current ordinance can be challenging,” says Manley. “An officer on the street can’t really tell if a person is texting or if they are just dialing a phone number or using an app. If the ordinance were to include any cellphone device in their hand, enforcement would be easier.”

The broader ordinance would mean that drivers couldn't use a cellphone at an intersection or stoplight. “Initially, the Public Safety Commission only wanted to include vehicles that were in motion, but now they include vehicles both in motion at stopped while in traffic or waiting at a traffic light,” says Manley.

He reiterates that the distinction is important for cutting down distracted driving. “The major concern is drivers losing track of the change in the driving picture ahead of them, and when you are in control of a vehicle you have a greater responsibility for those around you. Plus, how many times have you been stopped at a red light and no one is able to move forward because the person in front is on a cellphone? That’s why the recommendations now include anyone behind the wheel of a vehicle on the road.”

The recommendations also extend to cyclists in bike lanes and roadways, but the City Bicycle Advisory Council has stated its opposition to including bicycles in a hands-free ordinance.

Manley says recommendations will be reviewed by the Public Safety Commission and the Austin City Council, which will then determine changes to the current ordinance. “Austin is commonly cited as one of the most congested cities, and we are taking steps to reduce crashes and the number of injuries,” explains Manley. 

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