Hand-held cellphone use to be illegal while driving in Austin

The Austin City Council approved a law Thursday banning the use of hand-held cellphones and many other portable electronic devices while driving.

The law takes effect Jan. 1, after which police will be able to cite motorists and bicyclists if caught chatting, texting or tapping away on smartphone applications while in motion.

“It is a sweeping change no doubt,” said Scott Johnson, a member of the distracted driving study group that helped craft the ordinance. “This is a pedestrian issue, a bicycling issue and certainly a safety issue.”

The council approved a law that is less strict than what the study group recommended, which banned all hands-on use of portable devices while a driver operated a vehicle in the roadway. Under the approved law, drivers stuck in traffic or at stoplights will be allowed to make a quick call or pick up their phone as long as their vehicle is at a complete stop.

The vote was unanimous.

The law doesn’t apply to the use of hands-free devices, two-way radios and emergency communications, like dialing 911. Emergency personnel will also be exempt.

Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley said the next challenge will be teaching the public about the new law. He suggested a public education campaign and placing signs at hotels and the airport to inform visitors.

Manley said police will at first issue warnings for a limited time before issuing citations.

“This is not an issue we are going to resolve through enforcement, this is something we will resolve through education,” he said.

The law expands an ordinance the council passed in 2009 that made texting while driving illegal. That law proved problematic, officials have said, with many loopholes and with tickets easily dismissed if an offender insisted they were dialing a telephone number and not texting.

“Our attorneys said this is really hard to enforce, because it said you can make a phone call, but that’s all,” said Council Member Laura Morrison, a co-sponsor of the ordinance.

Despite its faults, Austin police have written more citations each year since the law went into effect in 2010. In 2013, police issued 366 tickets for texting while driving and were on pace to write more than 500 this year through June. Thirty-two percent of those tickets were dismissed, according to records from Austin’s municipal court.

Adding hands-on cellphone use to the law faced little public opposition Thursday. The only speakers who signed up to speak on the matter spoke in favor of the law.

However, the council hadn’t posted a public hearing notice for the law. During an Aug. 7 meeting, the council directed staffers to post a notice for a hearing but that didn’t occur because of a miscommunication, online minutes from Tuesday’s council work session show.

During discussion, Council Member Chris Riley said members of the Pedestrian Advisory Council had contacted him about the lack of study on the effect of cellphone use while operating a bicycle. Riley also said he had been emailed by some pedicab drivers who said being able to talk on a cellphone while working was essential to their work.

“I don’t think it makes sense to have a set of laws for motorized vehicles and nonmotorized vehicles,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. “If cyclists want to share the road with motorists they should be subject to the same laws as motorists.”

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