Abbott’s special session could take teeth out of Austin’s ‘hands-free’ law

Austin driver on their phone while stopped at a red light on June 9, 2017. (KXAN Photo)
Austin driver on their phone while stopped at a red light on June 9, 2017. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When state lawmakers return for a special session in July, they could drag Austin back to the past when it comes to driving with mobile devices.

While Gov. Greg Abbott signed a statewide texting-while-driving ban this week, he wants that to be the limit. That would override anything beyond things like Austin’s “hands-free” ordinance which bans the use of any electronic device while driving.

“We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” Gov. Abbott said while laying out 20 items for lawmakers to tackle during a July special session.

Stuck in the city’s notorious traffic, you see people breaking Austin laws every day.

Cpl. Chad Martinka from the Austin Police Department says, “It’s an issue that we’re dealing with on a regular basis. There’s no shortage of it here in Austin.”

Two years ago, Austin moved from a texting and driving ban to a hands free ordinance, because it was easier to enforce. From a distance you can’t tell if someone is texting, or on the internet, or using GPS, or listening to music.

“A lot of times we stop people, they’re going to deny they were texting, but with the ordinance all we have to prove is that they had it in their hand. We don’t have to prove what they were doing with it. Just that it was in their possession,” said Cpl. Martinka.

Austin driver on their phone while stopped at a red light on June 9, 2017. (KXAN Photo)
Austin driver on their phone while stopped at a red light on June 9, 2017. (KXAN Photo)

The amount of charges have almost doubled from year to year thanks to city of Austin safety initiatives. We compiled city records and found, in 2016, police filed an average of 496 citations a month. This year, the average is 913.

As for how the governor’s idea will impact Austin, the city’s media relations manager wrote KXAN, “While we are aware of the governor’s comments concerning a statewide preemption of local rules related to texting while driving, it is simply too early to speculate on how any legislative proposals he may have in mind might affect Austin’s hands-free ordinance.”

“If we are going to be called back for a special session for important things, overriding the cities’ authority to do safe things, I don’t think should be one of them,” said State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin.

Israel co-authored the state ban on texting while driving and sits on the Transportation House Committee for the second straight session. She’s encouraged the governor signed it into law but worried about this new idea.

“Austin police know what the city of Austin law is. Let’s go with that. Let’s not confuse people any more,” said Rep. Israel.

If Gov. Abbott’s amendment to the texting ban passes, it would affect many cities across the state.

Records from the Texas Department of Transportation show almost 100 cities have a cell phone ordinance in place. Some ban just texting and driving, but many other cities have banned drivers from using any type of wireless communication device in any way. The fines range from $200 to $500.

Abbott’s signature is a major victory for lawmakers pushing for a texting and driving ban for nearly a decade. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo first filed the bill in the Senate in 2009. Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed it in 2011.

“I am pleased that Gov. Abbott signed House Bill 62 and it will become law. By enacting this public safety legislation, the governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior,” Craddick said.

“For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it. This delivers a strong message to Texas drivers to stop texting, put down their phone, and keep their eyes on the road. Like AT&T says: It can wait.”

State lawmakers return to Austin for a 30-day special session July 18.

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