AUSTIN (KXAN) — Since Super Bowl Sunday, Austin police have been watching your driving habits more closely — handing out citations for those of you caught talking or texting while driving. The 30-day grace period in which officials only handed out warnings ended Jan. 31, and officials say 554 hands-free cases were filed in the Austin Municipal Court in February. Online records from the municipal court show more than 900 tickets for electronic device use while driving since the beginning of 2015.
Unless you’re using a hands-free system — such as Bluetooth, headphones, or an affixed GPS system — while driving a car or riding a bike, any handheld devices will be a citable offense. It is classified as a class C misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $500.
The new law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. In December 2014, City of Austin officials unveiled a public service announcement and urged drivers and bicyclists to practice safety on the road.
The new ordinance prohibits the use of electronic hand-held devices while operating a car or bicycle. You can hold your phone to talk or text if there is an emergency and you need to call 911 or 311 to report a crime or a crash. Police say, even in an emergency situation, it is best to pull over and come to a complete stop before using or operating any mobile or hand-held device. You are also allowed to use your phone while stopped at a stoplight or stopped in standstill traffic. Texas has banned using handheld phones and texting in school zones, and that law still stands with these new rules.
“I think anyone that drives around the City of Austin and pays attention, unfortunately, is still going to observe motorists that are not complying with the ordinance, that are texting while driving or using the hand-held phone in hand-held mode instead of with a hands free [device],” said Assistant Chief Brian Manley with the Austin Police Department.
“I think you’re seeing the citations being issued in those locations to a greater extent because we pay attention to those locations due to the safety issues that we have there with crashes, high-speed roadways, (and) things of that nature,” said Manley.
A recent study released in April 2013, by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, estimates that in 2010, 3,092 people were killed — 9 percent of all deadly crashes — and 416,000 people were hurt — 18 percent of all injury crashes — in crashes involving distracted drivers.
Some actions police officers narrow in on:
- Drivers manually making and disconnecting phone calls, with the exception of emergency calls to 911
- Participating in a conversation with the phone held to your ear or in your hand while talking on speaker phone
- Viewing and sending any electronic data — including email, text messages, pictures, websites, social media and games
- Entering or changing information in a navigation or GPS device. Drivers are expected to set the GPS prior to driving.
- Holding your cell phone, period. Hands-free means hands-free.
For more information about the hands-free law, you can visit the city’s website.