Austin police enforce hands-free ordinance with citations

Austin drivers caught with a cellphone in their hand while their vehicle is in motion could face a big fine. Austin police started fully enforcing the Austin hands-free ordinance Sunday. For the last month police were handing out warnings.

Officer Clay Goddard has worked for the Austin Police Department for 12 years and is currently part of the highway response team. Wednesday was the first time Goddard ever handed out a ticket because a driver was holding a cellphone behind the wheel.

The problem Goddard noticed over the last month is that people from all over Texas travel down I-35, many of them unaware of Austin's hands-free city ordinance.

"People that come from out of town or something, they might not know. Some of them come from Dallas and they won't know that. You just kind of let them know when they come through the city limits of Austin," said Goddard.

Enforcing the law is also tougher than it sounds. Drivers who are aware of the law often hide their phones below the window. That could make it difficult to prove they were using a hand-held electronic device if the case were to go to court.

"For me it's got to be pretty obvious. A lot of them, the phones up [by their face] and they're texting well driving," Goddard said.

Police said there are places and times where hand-held cellphone use is more common.

"When I do see people on their phone this is the kind of conditions that you see it in. When there's slow traffic people kind of get bored in the car driving and usually that's where fender benders happen, someone runs into the back of someone because they weren't paying attention," said Goddard.

Texting and driving was already illegal in Texas school zones before the new ordinance, but that continues to be a hot spot for enforcement.

"That's kind of where we look for it and it's easiest to spot. A lot of people don't realize they're entering a school zone and they're on the phone," said Goddard.

Tickets for violating the hands-free ordinance can cost up to $500 and drivers can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.

There are some exceptions to the law. If a driver is stopped in traffic or at a red light they can use their phone. Also if there is an emergency use of a cellphone is permitted to call authorities.