Wear: Drive to ax local phoning-while-driving law might be mere distraction

4:37 p.m Saturday, July 15, 2017 Local
COURTESY OF CITY OF LAKEWAY
The Legislature will consider whether to outlaw local ordinances prohibiting hand-held phone use while driving.

So, the phoning-while-driving battle at the Legislature, seemingly settled in May after a 10-year slog, will be with us again in the special session beginning this week.

At least, that’s what Gov. Greg Abbott would prefer, based on a draft call for the session released last week. Abbott’s official summons to the Legislature, at least for now, included only some must-pass “sunset” bills to keep a few state agencies running. But then, when that legislation has moved through the Senate, the governor tells us he’ll add an additional 19 policy priorities to the call for the 30-day session.

They include wiping out all local laws on using a phone — excuse me, an “electronic communication device” — behind the wheel.

This would be part of a general Abbott push to eliminate the “patchwork” of local laws in Texas. I wrote about that rhetorical joust a few weeks ago.

If Abbott gets his wish, it is very likely that in places like Austin, which have broader laws than the statewide texting-while-driving ban Abbott signed in June, enforcing the law would become much more difficult. That’s not just me talking, by the way. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, used that argument back in May when House Bill 62 was before the Senate for final passage.

Austin’s 2014 ordinance outlaws not only texting but also talking on a phone while driving. By contrast, the recently passed state ban merely addresses reading, typing or sending an electronic message while behind the wheel. That would cover texting, emailing and social media messaging. But the state measure still allows use of a hand-held phone to access a music or GPS navigation app and, most importantly, to tap in a phone number and make a call holding the phone to your ear.

That wasn’t necessarily the extent of what HB 62 sponsors Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, wanted for the new law, but it was as much as they could get through the Legislature.

Taylor, holding his phone in his hand and pantomiming typing, wondered how an onlooking cop would be able to tell if he was typing an illegal text message or lawfully typing in an address for navigation. Or perhaps asking Pandora to give him a Miley Cyrus song. He didn’t say that last part, so I’m not sure if the senator enjoys humming along with “Wrecking Ball.”

At any rate, he had a point, as earlier experiences in Austin confirm.

The Austin City Council in 2009 passed an ordinance banning texting while driving, and that was the only city law in place until the more encompassing hand-held phone ban took effect in January 2015. Police here had a hard time with that first version, both on the front end and then later in municipal court.

In 2013, Austin police issued just 366 citations for use of a hand-held phone while driving, about one per day, and fully a third of those were dismissed at court. Officials said back in 2014 that defendants would get to court and simply testify that they were entering a phone number, not texting, when the officer caught them in the act.

Things have changed with Austin’s newer ban, which allows use of a hand-held device by a driver — if the car is in motion — only to call 911 about a wreck or other emergency. No texting, typing, talking or surfing. Keep the iPhone in your pocket, the new law says, or face the threat of a $220 fine in municipal court. And with only the emergency use exception, dismissals at court become far less likely, police say.

More and more Austinites are getting cited — and convicted.

In the last 11 months of 2015 (miscreants received only warnings that January once the ordinance first took effect), Austin police cited 5,124 drivers for phone use while driving, about 465 a month. In 2016, that increases slightly to 496 per month.

But in the first six months of this year, that almost doubled to 944 per month.

Sgt. Michael Barger of the Austin Police Department’s highway enforcement command said that just after the first of this year the department began assigning five to 10 bike-riding cops downtown and near the University of Texas, one day a week, to look for phone, seat belt and intersection violations.

Furthermore, Barger said in an interview last week, 90 percent of those people are getting convicted — or getting a Bluetooth device. He said that police and the Austin Municipal Court have agreed that if someone cited under the ordinance can show the court a receipt for $50 or more on a hands-free device, the charge will be deferred with a $75 court cost levy.

So, has the city law cut down on people distracted from their driving by cellphone use?

“Absolutely, I think it has made a huge difference,” Barger said. He said many of the people he stops for violations tell him they wouldn’t have done it if they had seen a nearby officer watching. Which means, at the very least, people don’t do it some of the time if for no other reason than to avoid a fine.

Hey, it’s a start.

If a second state law passes, the one Abbott prefers, then Austin and the 40 or so other Texas cities with comprehensive phoning-behind-the-wheel ban would essentially revert to Austin’s pre-2014 situation. Harder to cite, harder to convict. Which might be the point for those that support the change.

Zaffirini has another idea for ending that patchwork that the governor abhors: Upgrade state law (before Zaffirini’s long-sought bill takes effect Sept. 1) to ban not only reading and sending messages, but also making phone calls. In other words, Austinize the state law.

Zaffirini on Thursday filed Senate Bill 39 to do just that in the special session. Rep. Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio, filed an identical measure, House Bill 117, on Wednesday. I noticed the conspicuous absence of Craddick on that House bill.

That might be a concession to reality. Craddick, who partnered with Zaffirini through four sessions to pass the texting ban that finally became law in June, had made it clear he wants people to put their phones down while driving. But it is almost a certainty that the Legislature as currently constituted will not pass a broader ban.

As for deep-sixing the local laws, that’s harder to predict. The debate in the coming weeks no doubt will focus on the transgender bathroom bill and taxation issues. The phoning-while-driving bill in that charged environment would be only, well, a distraction in the drive to purify public potties.

Perhaps lawmakers will choose to leave it in their pockets.

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