Part of me doesn't like this on principle: City Councilmembers are (or should be) lawmakers, not actuaries. You can’t ban through criminal law every behavior in life that creates a risk.
Councilmember Mike Martinez began floating the idea of a local texting ban last year but said he wanted to see how bills fared at the state Legislature first. More than a dozen bills addressing cell phone use while driving failed during this year's legislative session, he said. One that survived — prohibiting cell phone use in school zones — will take effect Sept. 1, but some cities are questioning whether they must enforce it. Austin plans to enforce it and install about 750 signs related to the school-zone ban — at an estimated cost of $80,000 — within a year, starting this fall.
Martinez said he's interested in enacting a ban on cell phone use while driving — an idea he suggested last year — but said the issue needs more debate. There is clearer data to show that texting while driving poses a danger, he said.
A report released last month by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and cited by Martinez found that when truck drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when they weren't texting. The study, financed with $300,000 from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, involved outfitting the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras over 18 months.
The Austin Police Department does not have statistics on wrecks that might have been caused by text messaging, said Donald Baker, commander of the highway enforcement division. He said the ban could be tough to enforce. Officers would either have to catch a driver texting or rely on driver and witness accounts if a wreck occurred, he said.
"If someone was texting and they had the phone down low and nobody saw them, how do you know they are in violation? Human nature is that the driver isn't going to admit it to the officer," Baker said....
Martinez said he thinks that most drivers would comply and that having a law in place would make people more aware of the risks of texting. Mayor Leffingwell said it likely would take awhile for the public to get used to the ban, just as it took time for seat belt laws to gain public acceptance.
Also, regular readers know I'm highly skeptical of any public safety solution proposed because it will "make people more aware of the risks ." That's not the purpose of criminal law. If you want to send a message to the public, rent a billboard. Most of them aren't reading city ordinances in their spare time.
On the 3-foot buffer, I don't see why police don't already have plenty of authority to cite people for reckless driving if they swerve too near a cyclist or pedestrian - this is a solution pointlessly in search of a problem.
The texting while driving ban is a more interesting debate but my gut reactions incline me against it. For starters, it's basically unenforceable and runs counter to many people's routine life habits. As one Statesman commenter noted:
Until the city council can add more hours to the day or fix the traffic congestion problems, reading email on the phone will persist. When a commute to/from downtown takes 45 min - 1 hour thats productivity wasted unless the time can be reclaimed somehow. The most efficient use of time for some is to review emails for work on the way into work. Single parents (or other understandably over-busy persons) don’t necessarily have the time to do it later; multi-tasking is a way of life.I agree and I don't think it's reasonable or even wise to ban that utilitarian behavior through criminal enforcement. Though I'm lucky enough to live close to downtown, I know a lot of Austin commuters who use their Blackberry that way, and it's not as though the city has provided adequate mass transit to give those folks other options.
Another Statesman commenter dubbed "Walksthroughthemud" identified some of the sources of my own skepticism about the proposed new ordinance:
In 1994, 5% of us had cell phones. Now 80% of us do and in that 15-year span guess what, traffic fatalities have gone...down (both in absolute terms and per miles driven, etc)! Yes, there a many other factors one must control for to analyze data like this but think about it - if DWT is so dangerous, how could it be possible that traffic fatalities have gone down dramatically while cell phone use has approached 100%? Well, here's one way - studies have shown that people that are talking on their cell phone while driving, drive slower and change lanes less often. Who knows, maybe DWT actually makes us drive safer??? Then there is the whole other issue of banning cell phone use while allowing other activities that are just as distracting like eating, applying make-up, reading (we've all seen it), swatting kids in the back seat, etc. Like many other laws in this country, this is nothing more that a do-gooder crusade that doesn't make any sense and politicians love.Bingo! This drummed-up safety issue smacks of political grandstanding, mulcting more revenue from drivers in the name of public safety (much like red light cameras) without investing adequately in public transport or other needed solutions to traffic safety and congestion. I hope somebody with some common sense swats down this idea before it gets too far along.