APD enforces hands-free driving ordinance

Katie Keenan

In a caravan of 20 motorcycles, ten patrols and a Capital Metro bus, Austin Police Department officers took to Research Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon to enforce a hands-free city ordinance, which prohibits Austin drivers from texting, calling or manipulating electronic devices while on the road.

The ordinance went into effect in January 2015 to address the dangers of texting and driving. According to the American Automobile Association, driving while texting is three times more deadly than driving while intoxicated, and 80 percent of drivers cite distraction as a serious problem that makes them feel unsafe on the road. 

“Our goal is to raise awareness with the city and with the public of the dangers of distracted driving,” APD Sergeant Michael Barger said. “We’d obviously like to have people not get tickets, we want this to be a notice to them that we’re out there.”

Police caught upwards of 20 drivers texting or calling on their cell phones during the patrol on Wednesday. Officers on the Capital Metro bus coordinated their communication via walkie-talkie with patrol officers on the freeway who were either on motorcycles or in patrol cars. When a driver was noticed using his or her electronic device, officers immediately notified those who were out on the road to pull them aside and issue a citation. A few drivers noticed the increased police presence and attempted to quickly conceal their devices, evading a ticket of up to $500 that would have been issued to them otherwise.

“It’s something that needed to be done, because even though the law has passed, we’re still seeing a lot of violations out here,” APD Lieutenant Jerry Gonzalez said. “I think this is just gonna bring more awareness. Eventually I think people are gonna start learning that we are serious about this.”

Many of the offenders that officers run into are not the typical millennial cell phone users, Barger said, adding that driving while using a cell phone has a lot to do with the way electronic devices were introduced into people’s lives.

“It’s actually people from the 25 age group on up that are statistically likely to be using their cell phones,” Barger said. “The younger generation has actually been taught, from the moment that they start learning how to drive, that using a cell phone is not appropriate.”

Ariana Rivera, international relations and global studies junior, said enforcing the hands-free law is essential to ensuring people drive safely, in addition to abiding by other traffic laws.

“I feel like everybody just crosses wherever they please, and I feel like if you’re not paying attention you can definitely hurt somebody,” Rivera said, admitting that she also texts and drives. “I do kind of regularly, which I shouldn’t, because I know something can happen in a second.”

First-time offenders have the chance to obtain a reduction on their fine amount if they purchase a Bluetooth device, Gonzalez said. If the offender refrains from receiving a second violation in the three months after they received their first, they could have the ticket removed from their record.