Stricter laws on phone use could be coming for Austin drivers

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Stricter rules for using your phone while driving could come this year in Austin.  Texting is already prohibited in the city. That ban went into effect in 2009.

Austin City Council members approved the creation of a distracted driving study group Thursday at their meeting. The group will come up with ideas to change the city’s current ordinance on texting while driving.  The changes could mean no more phone use while driving, unless it’s hands-free.

Enforcing the current texting ban in Austin is difficult due to the nature of the ordinance, council member Laura Morrison said.

“If a police office drives by and sees you holding [a phone], they don’t know if you’re texting or making a phone call,” she said. “So, if we were to go completely hands-free, which we put in [the recommendation], we want [the study group] to consider that. Lots of cities and states have done that. That would make it much more enforceable.”

Aside from a public safety impact, experts say limiting distracted driving can lower insurance costs.

“To the extent that we reduce loss, incidents of auto fatalities, and injuries and property loss, insurance rates are going to go down,” said Beaman Floyd.

Floyd is the executive director at the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions. He referenced data pointing to the effects text messaging and dialing have had on car crashes. He compares new distracted driving laws to seat belt laws decades ago.

“What ultimately happened with seat belts was, you had a cultural change, where people got to the point where they said, ‘Wearing a seat belt is normal. Not wearing a seat belt in your car is an abnormal thing,’” said Floyd. “If you can basically change the culture and say, ‘It just doesn’t feel right to be messing with my electronic device inside a car,’  then you’re going to see some real results.”

The study group will take their ideas to Austin’s Public Safety Commission. They’ll take recommendations to City Council for a vote. That could all happen in August.

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