Austin could make hands-free ordinance stricter

A statewide ban on texting while driving was recently signed into law. The City of Austin may take things even further, by adding more regulations to their current cell phone ordinance.

When it comes to distracted driving, nearly everyone has an opinion. Transportation safety advocate Scott Johnson made three recommendations to the Public Safety Commission on Monday, pertaining to Austin's hands-free ordinance. The first would make it illegal to use your phone at a stop sign or stop light.

"Right now what happens is that people, as they slow down even though its against the law, the vehicles in motion and they creep forward. They end up hitting someone, another vehicle or make it into the crosswalk more so than they would without a phone," says Scott Johnson, transportation safety advocate.

Commissioner Ed Scruggs says this recommendation is likely to get backed by the Public Safety Commission. It was originally included in our city ordinance but taken out at the last minute.

"We believe that we're the only city in Texas with a distracted driving ordinance where we're not prohibiting use at a stop light. So if we were to go that route, we wouldn't be more strict than other cities, we would be in line with them," says Ed Scruggs, Public Safety Commission. 

The second proposed recommendation would ban headphones that cover your ear completely or partially, with the exception of earbuds. The third would ban a passenger from taking a selfie or video while the car is in motion, for the reason that the driver might be distracted. APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom says data shows that throughout the country distracted driving is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. That is one reason we see bike officers downtown.

"They're able to write tickets for distracted driving. In a single day they'll write over 100 tickets with four or five officers just being downtown, where they're watching people near intersections and making stops based on the use of electronic devices that fits within the current ordinance," says Asst. Chief Justin Newsom, Austin Police Department.

Governor Greg Abbott signed the statewide texting while driving ban into law in June. He also called for a measure that would pre-empt local ordinances that go beyond the statewide ban. It's too early to determine whether that will pass.

"If you are from a town where there are a total of five stop lights, you're driving there, and then you come to Austin where there are thousands of stop lights - it's a very different atmosphere in which to drive in. So, I think some communities say the safety regulations of distracted driving are warranted to tailor it to that individual community," says Scruggs.

The specifics still need to be discussed before the Public Safety Commission decides to actually make a recommendation. But, Commissioner Scruggs says our ordinance is in need of some updating.