Three years after Austin police officers started enforcing a ban on texting while driving, the city’s chief prosecutor wants to clarify what is illegal under the law.
When in Austin, drivers are forbidden from doing scores of things on their cellphones, including sending electronic messages, playing games and adjusting the volume on a song playing.
But can drivers read a book on their e-readers while turning onto Congress Avenue? Or check the news on their iPads?
The law is unclear, said Bianca Bentzin, the city’s chief prosecutor, who said her work on a draft updating it began when a fellow prosecutor wondered what devices are banned under the ordinance.
Nothing has been proposed, she said, and neither the Austin Police Department nor the City Council has considered or urged any changes to the law, officials said. But Bentzin has been researching other cities’ laws to see what works as technology continues to evolve.
The current ordinance, which went into effect in 2010, prohibits drivers from using a “wireless communication device” to view, send or compose an electronic message.
For example, the ordinance suggests only cellphones are banned, she said, and not increasingly popular devices such as tablets and e-readers.
It’s unclear if the ordinance bans dialing a phone number while driving, she said, and she’s also trying to clarify the law’s language so drivers clearly understand what’s expected of them.
The ordinance says that in addition to texting, drivers can’t “engage other application software while operating a motor vehicle.” That language is enforceable under the law, Bentzin said, but it could confuse drivers.
Two months after passing the texting ban in October 2009, council members expanded it so that using a mobile electronic device to email, adjust music settings or get directions with a GPS navigational system would be among the illegal activities while driving.
There are several exceptions to the law, including if the vehicle is stopped, if someone’s life or safety are in immediate danger or if the navigational system is attached to the vehicle.
Still, Bentzin said, people often misinterpret the law and claim they were using their phones to find directions, not text.
Bentzin said she’s been working on a draft revising the law in earnest for about three months.
“I think people are finally getting with the program about how dangerous this is,” she said. “I think that people are really starting to see now that this needs more teeth to it.”
She compared using cellphones behind the wheel to drinking and driving. When the latter became illegal, people first tried hiding their beverage to disguise their drinking — just like some in Austin try to hide texting while they drive — but eventually a cultural change took hold and society accepted it was inappropriate behavior. She said perceptions about texting and other cellphone use while driving are experiencing a similar evolution.
Lt. Robert Richman with the Police Department’s highway enforcement command division said it can be challenging to tell whether drivers are using their phone to text or to make an emergency phone call, but he said often they’re so distracted that officers can get close enough to confirm what’s happening.
Through Jan. 2, 585 texting prohibition citations have been issued since officers started enforcing the ordinance in 2010.
Among the 463 of those cases that have been closed, more than 250 offenders were found guilty, and six offenders were found not guilty, city records show. About 40 were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. Eight paid fines associated with the violation through jail time; three paid through community service.
Ten had their cases dismissed through a plea bargain, records show. In some instances, the driver could have been facing other charges and struck a deal with prosecutors to have the citation dismissed.
Richman said he couldn’t comment on Bentzin’s research into changing the ordinance but said any effort to make the law more common sense and more enforceable is good.
Council Member Mike Martinez, the lead sponsor behind the city’s texting ban, said through an aide that it would be premature for him to comment on changes to the ordinance when he hasn’t seen them, but that he would consider supporting changes that make Austin safer.
Mike Levy, vice chairman of the city’s public safety commission, said he would support making the ban more specific.
“She needs to make it ironclad,” he said.
According to the city’s “Electronic Message While Driving ordinance:
A driver of a motor vehicle may not use a wireless communication device to view, send, or compose an electronic message or engage other application software while operating a motor vehicle.