Austin Public Safety Commission considering stricter distracted driving ordinance

- The Public Safety Commission is looking into whether to update Austin’s hands free cell phone ordinance. 
                
The commission is looking into three specific recommendations to update the ordinance. One of them would make it illegal for passengers to take pictures in a moving vehicle.

The commission said they are least likely to pass that proposal, but it is something they want to know more about. 
                
The other two recommendations, which are more likely to make it to a vote, would prohibit noise cancelling headphones and texting when a driver is stopped in a lane of travel.                

“We've given the citizens of Austin something that they perhaps should never have had in the first place,” said transportation safety advocate Scott Johnson referring to allowing Austin drivers to use a smartphone when stopped in a travel lane. 

“You don't just start refocusing on the road the moment that you put your mobile away after a stop,” Johnson added.  
                
That’s one of three recommendations Johnson brought before the Public Safety Commission Monday and it's one of the proposals the commission is considering. 
                
“Cities in Texas that have an ordinance like this, we're the only one that has exempted stopping at a light or in traffic,” said Ed Scruggs, member of the Public Safety Commission.  

As part of the ordinance, drivers are allowed to use an electronic device when stopped on the road. City Council included that exemption hoping it would encourage people to wait until they come to a stop to use their phone. 

“APD felt that an individual was going to probably look for opportunities to text and we wanted to provide them opportunities to do that i.e. at a light or when there were situations to where they needed to use it,” said Assistant Chief Troy Gay of the Austin Police Department.  

Another suggested update to the ordinance would ban noise-cancelling headphones when someone is behind the wheel. It wouldn't apply to earbuds or Bluetooth devices and the commission seems mostly on board with it.

“I'll just say that the music headphones make a lot of sense. You should be aware of your entire environment while driving, including what you can hear,” said Dr. Kim Rossmo, a member of the commission.

“There's no reason to have that. They're not critical to telephone conversations or anything of that nature,” Scruggs said. 

The third and most controversial recommendation would prohibit a passenger from taking pictures on his/her phone in a moving car. 

“I think that's a little more problematic because there isn't a similar ordinance out there like that. I understand the desire for that in the sense that people are taking selfies in the car and it's distracting, but it’s very difficult to enforce,” said Scruggs.  

Several members of the commission said that goes a little too far. 

“Are we going to forbid discussions with the driver of the car or the passengers of a car?” Rossmo asked. 

The Public Safety Commission will revisit the ordinance in a couple months. If any of the suggestions are approved, it will go to City Council for consideration.


 

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