Austin police were out in force Wednesday hunting for hands-free ordinance violators on Interstate 35.
Members of the Austin Police Department’s Highway Enforcement Unit boarded a city bus around 7 a.m. near Interstate 35 and Parmer Lane and took to the highway to act as spotters for a swarm of officers on motorcycles who were trying to catch drivers using cellphones on the road.
Sgt. Michael Barger said the department has used the tactic several times since Jan. 1, 2015, when Austin’s ban on the use of cellphones and other hand-held electronic devices while driving went into effect.
“It’s a platform that makes it easier to see into the vehicles because we are in an elevated position,” Barger said of using a bus. “It used to be that people would hold their phone up while driving so they could text. Now with the ordinance, people know that they can’t have it in their hands so they hold it down in their lap. When you’re in a regular car, you have a hard time looking into a vehicle because you are not in an elevated position.”
Drivers can still use their phones with a Bluetooth or other hands-free device, but they aren’t allowed to manipulate the screen unless they are at a red light, according to police.
“If somebody has a phone in their hand, we will be issuing them a citation for (violating the) hands-free ordinance,” he said.
During Wednesday’s three-hour initiative, officers issued 96 citations for using electronic devices while driving and eight warnings, in addition to 28 citations and nine warnings for other offenses.
Officer Chris Hanratty spotted several driversin the first 30 minutes of the initiative from his spot in the raised rear section of the bus.
“I think people are starting to pay more attention because we are doing initiatives like this and word gets around,” he said.
Detective Patrick Oborski said it’s frustrating to see people still violating the ordinance, but he has seen a significant reduction in the number of offenders.
Those who do get tickets can have them dismissed by purchasing a Bluetooth device costing $50 or more, though court fees are still applicable.
Oborski said he often offers to help drivers he has pulled over set up Bluetooth systems in their cars during traffic stops.
“The people that are doing it know the law themselves,” he said. “(Many) actually have cars that are equipped to use Bluetooth, and they are just not using it.”