AUSTIN, Texas (Nexstar) — Texas has a texting while driving ban, but there’s a new effort underway to make the law go even further to keep drivers safe.
“I am one that will tell you from the start, hands-free is safer,” said Jennifer Smith, founder of StopDistractions.Org. “You should not be using your phone at all while driving, even to talk. But right now, where we’re at in the world, you can get a hands-free law passed. If you took that phone out of the driver’s hand, that enables law enforcement to enforce the law and that enables them to issue consequences to change that behavior.”
Smith, a Texas native, lost her mom in a crash 10 years ago that was caused by another driver who was texting behind the wheel.
“We worked on the texting law for over eight years in the state of Texas,” Smith said.
Under the latest proposal that’s been filed ahead of the legislative session, all wireless communication use would have to be hands-free. Hands-free means people can still use their voice-operated or car push-to-talk functions. It would also override local rules related to cell phone use, which several cities have in place. The offense would be punishable by a fine. Austin has a city hands-free ordinance and law enforcement also use the state texting while driving ban to ticket drivers, too.
“If you pick up your phone in the City of Austin and you’re not making an emergency call or taking some sort of emergency action with your phone, then that is a violation of our city ordinance,” Sgt. Michael Barger with the Austin Police Department said. “If you pick up your phone and you text, then you’re violating state law.”
The ordinance, which includes up to a $500 fine, went into effect in January 2015. The city also has a first offense deferral program, where a driver may be eligible to resolve a case with the Austin Prosecutor’s Office through a deferral agreement. They could get a discount on their court fee upon proof that they purchased a hands-free device for use in the car.
Barger says having a statewide ordinance could clear up any confusion for drivers when they travel from one city to another.
“I think that having different ordinances within the state makes it difficult for an individual to drive and know what’s expected of them,” he explained.
Smith thinks the version of the legislation that’s been filed is strong but could lead to loopholes. She worries about drivers who follow hands-free guidelines but still watch videos or FaceTime on a device that’s mounted inside the car.
“There was a five-year-old girl killed on Christmas Eve in 2014 because a driver was FaceTiming when he was driving and he rear-ended their car and took her life,” Smith said.
The Austin Police Department wrote 2123 citations in downtown Austin in 2018 and handed out 689 warnings related to using a phone while driving.
“Our ultimate goal is to educate people and to stop them from doing dangerous behavior when they drive,” Barger said.