By Paige Lambert
Hands-free ordinances are sweeping Central Texas with Austin, San Antonio and every major city in Hays County except Dripping Springs under the ban.
State officials argue a ban on using mobile devices while driving would greatly decrease distracted driving accidents. There is very little data, however, to back it on the local level.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 2,266 urban crashes in 2014 involved cell phone usage. Among those, 11 were fatal.
Austin and San Antonio enacted the cell phone ban Jan. 1 of last year, with Wimberley quickly following suit.
The typical hands-free ordinance states drivers and bicyclists can’t engage in texting or calls, view photos or perform any action requiring the individual to use a mobile device.
Drivers can’t use a device while stopped at traffic signals or stop signs. Ordinances do give exception to emergency officials and law enforcement.
Buda adopted an ordinance that mirrored Austin’s in July. Council member Wiley Hopkins, a supporter of the ordinance, said he proposed the idea after almost being sideswept by an oncoming vehicle.
“The driver was using a device and swerved into my lane,” Hopkins said. “This happened twice a few months prior to proposing [the ordinance].”
Buda Police Chief Bo Kidd said this type of distracted driving wasn’t a chronic issue before. Kidd added there haven’t been any citations issued.
Buda used a grace period to educate people and post signs around the main thoroughfares.
“I think we’ve all benefitted from the succession of these cities’ education,” Kidd said. “We were educated by Austin and I’m sure Kyle learned a little from us too.”
While there isn’t any data about distracted driving in Buda, the motive of the ordinance was to prevent statistics from building up.
“The whole idea was prevention, and certainly communities north and south of us influenced the importance of it,” Hopkins said. “We also have a large commuter community, so it was incumbent of us to have consistency.”
Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett said Kyle has been free of distracted violators since the city council adopted the ordinance in September.
Since the grace period ended Nov. 1, Barnett said officers have only given a handful of verbal warnings.
“It could have been coincidental, when they stopped someone for an expired registration and noticed they were holding a cell phone,” he said. “Most officers don’t want to write multiple violations when they stop drivers.”
Barnett said he wasn’t surprised by the lack of violators. Those who commute to Austin were probably already in a hands-free mindset before Kyle even adopted the ordinance, he said.
“I think the message has gotten across to residents,” Barnett said. “We are seeing an overall improvement in people paying attention more.”
Both cities have yet to see if the ordinance will help during the summer months when thousands of people visit for vacation and are off school. Both cities’ grace periods ended late last year.
Barnett said the city of Kyle is awaiting a green light from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to install six more hands-free signs along I-35 right-of-way points to help educate visitors.
“It’s an educational process,” Barnett said. “We hope people will be aware of the dangers and the ordinance will remind them to be self compliant.”