As of January 1st, 2010, drivers in Austin, TX cannot legally use cell phones for anything other than phone calls. That means no texting, no scrolling, no surfing, no navigating while driving on a public roadway unless you need to report an emergency.
There will be a one-month grace period, during which offenders will get off with a warning. After that, violations are Class C misdemeanors that could result in a $500 fine. Here are some answers to questions about the law.
How will the ban be enforced?
With difficulty. Officers will make stops based primarily on erratic driving, said Austin Assistant Police Chief Al Eells. Beyond that, police will have to catch a driver in the act to make a traffic stop. Because dialing a cell phone can look like texting, an officer will need to watch a driver for a “prolonged” period of time to make sure he’s actually texting, said Cmdr. Stephen Baker, who heads up Austin Police Department’s highway enforcement command.
Moreover, since the violation must also occur while the vehicle is moving, the observing officer essentially will have to be driving alongside a potential offender. Thus, for safety reasons, the opportunity to view driving-and-texting scofflaws will occur mainly in slower, city driving. “It’s going to be a lot of officer discretion,” Baker said.
What about the surfing/scrolling/e-mailing part of the ban: How will that be enforced?
Lightly. It will be difficult to distinguish whether a driver is, say, looking up a contact to dial (legal) or reading e-mail (illegal). “If a person is just holding a cell phone up in front of his face and reading it, we don’t make that stop,” Baker said. “There’s no way we’re going to be taking those to court.”
Will police take my cell phone and read my texts?
While prosecutors say such searches would be legal, Baker said Austin police won’t search anyone’s phone.
What if I’m from out of town and haven’t heard about the law?
Driver beware. Eells said the city will place informational brochures at places such as the airport and convention center. “Will that capture the guy traveling through Austin on I-35? Probably not,” he said.
Will anyone be arrested?
Not unless the driver refuses to sign a citation. A texting violation won’t go on the driver’s record, either.
How big is the problem locally?
Austin police report that since the beginning of the year, there have been 129 serious collisions in which cell phones have been implicated and 12 involving texting while driving.
Why is texting banned and not cell phones?
We’re not ready to give up driving and dialing. This year the Texas Legislature considered more than a dozen bills to restrict driving while chatting, but settled on only one: no cell phone usage in school zones.
“Our cars are different in Texas,” Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, told The Dallas Morning News in April. “We want to be able to carry guns, spit, chew, call on our cell phones or sharpen our knives while driving.”
Why have any bans?
Driving distractions have always been a problem, said John Lee, who literally helped write the book on the subject: “Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects and Mitigation.” He recently attended a conference where a presenter showed a video of a trucker talking on two cell phones and smoking while steering through a work zone with his knees. The current problem, said Lee, a University of Wisconsin professor, began when cell phones turned into computers. Unlike time-honored distractions such as adjusting the radio or screaming at the kids, texting and surfing mix cognitive, visual and physical demands that make it difficult to drive responsibly at the same time. “On the face of it, I can’t imagine why anyone would try to drive while doing it,” he said. Plenty of people do, though. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a Web site on to the issue: www.distraction.gov. Starting Wednesday, federal employees will be prohibited from texting while driving government vehicles. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting and driving. Four of those bans also include prohibitions on Internet browsing and GPS navigation.
Is texting really dangerous?
Most likely. Stories abound of drivers jabbing at cell phones while drifting in and out of their lane – what police call “pinballing.” Some of the most avid texters – teenagers – are statistically horrible drivers anyway.
That’s why, in addition to the 18 states with outright bans, eight others – including Texas – prohibit young drivers from texting while behind the wheel. In July, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that placed cameras in long-haul truckers’ cabs pegged the risk of texting while driving at 23 times greater than when not texting. A couple of weeks ago, a University of Utah study found that teenagers driving a laboratory simulator had a six-fold risk of crashing when they texted.
Still, “there’s a whole lot we still don’t know yet,” said Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization funded by insurance companies. For example, she said, though studies show that texting while driving increases risky behavior, that doesn’t necessarily mean more crashes.
She points out similar gaps in cell phone research. Federal statistics show that at any given time, 11 percent of drivers are using phones. The Insurance Institute studied crash records and found a four-fold risk of serious crashes among drivers using phones. Taken together, those findings would suggest a big rise in overall accidents. But, said Fleming, such stats haven’t shown up yet.
Am I part of the problem?
Not according to you. A 2008 American Automobile Association report revealed that 82 percent of motorists rated distracted driving as a serious problem. But more than half also admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving; 14 percent said they texted behind the wheel. Translation: “I’m a perfectly fine driver. The problem is with all the other nuts out there,” said Bernie Fette, public affairs officer for Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute.
Are other types of drivers prohibited from texting?
Under an emergency order issued in 2008 by the Federal Railroad Administration following several high-profile rail crashes, locomotive engineers cannot text while on duty. “We don’t have a steering wheel in locomotives,” said Connie English, state legislative director of the United Transportation Union of Texas. “But you still have to be observant.”
Don’t other activities distract drivers, too?
Sure. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found 80 percent of all crashes could be linked to driver inattention, which includes distraction and fatigue. The institute has produced a continuum of distractions, from less risky to more, such as: checking your speedometer, talking on your CB radio, reading a book, personal grooming, looking at a paper map and using a calculator.
What about eating?
Potentially hazardous, depending on the comestible. In 2002, Hagerty Classic Insurance, which insures owners of classic and collectible automobiles, analyzed the issue after it kept hearing that “police reported seeing pizza or hamburger splattered all over the cars and accident scenes,” said McKeel Hagerty, the Michigan company’s CEO and founder. Its findings, based on statistics and interviews with law enforcement officials: Foods that spilled easily were more perilous because drivers reflexively try to clean up – particularly owners of collectible cars. No. 1 on the list was coffee. But the top 10 also included barbecue, chili and cream-filled doughnuts. No. 2? Hot soup. “Go figure,” said Hagerty.
How about talking with other passengers?
Distracting, at least for the young and chatty. Virginia Tech’s continuum showed talking to be low-risk. But when Texas A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute used a driving simulator to measure how teenagers drove while using cell phones or chatting with passengers, it found the latter to be more distracting. Why? “The driver was physically turning to talk to the other guys,” Fette said.
Possibly distracting, politically untouchable. In 2008 the California Legislature passed a bill prohibiting drivers from keeping pets on their laps, however, the so-called Paris Hilton bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Do laws restricting the use of distractible devices work?
Possibly. An October 2009 study by the Insurance Institute concluded that states with cell phone bans showed marked and sustained declines in the rate of use among drivers. That said, many drivers continued to use their phones illegally and others simply might have switched to hands-free devices – which research shows are nearly as dangerous.
Are there better solutions?
Rather than targeting a handful of the endless focus-diverting activities, Lee and others are working to develop in-vehicle sensors which, by tracking head or eye movements, activate an alarm whenever a driver is distracted.
Under Austin’s new law, can I use my fabulous new iPhone app to read the Statesman while driving to work?
Can I continue to read the indispensable print version while commuting?
Source: Austin American Statesman
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