Austin motorists prepare for new hands-free law that prevents handling of devices while driving

Drivers in Austin will have to ring in the new year by putting down their cell phones and keeping their hands on the steering wheel.

Texting while driving is illegal in Austin, but starting Jan. 1 drivers and bicyclists will also not be allowed to touch their phones, laptops, GPS or other electronic devices while their vehicle or bicycle is in motion. Violators face potential fines of up to $500.

"The ordinance that we had in place was very difficult for the officers to enforce because the officer had to determine if the motorist was using the phone to text, which would be a violation, or to dial a phone number, which would be legal," said Brian Manley, Austin Police Department assistant chief.

Austin City Council passed the law Aug. 28 after an advisory group studied the issue and made recommendations that shaped the ordinance.

Drivers and cyclists can touch devices if they are lawfully stopped at a red light, during standstill traffic or if they are trying to contact emergency services, Manley said. Use of any device, whether hands-free or otherwise, will still be illegal in school zones.

Smartphones and other devices can still be used if they are mounted to the car dashboard. Motorists can also utilize a Bluetooth or similar device such as earphones as long as only one earbud is being used, Manley said. That way, he said drivers could still hear the traffic around them.

The new law is intended to limit drivers' distractions and will make Austin roads safer, Manley said.

Officials blame distracted driving

Regardless of whether a phone or other device is being held or utilized in a hands-free manner, drivers who use a device while driving have a higher risk of being in a collision, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

In Travis County there were 10 fatalities and 1,712 serious injuries in 2013 because of distracted driving, according to TxDOT data. A total of 4,835 crashes took place last year in Travis County because of distracted driving, the state transportation agency claims.

Those tasked with developing the hands-free ordinance are hopeful the new rule will help reduce Austin's traffic congestion. Distracted driving leads to vehicle accidents, which lead to slower travel times, Manley said.

"I believe there can be and there will be a small improvement in the amount of traffic congestion if people will pick their phone up less with this ordinance," said Scott Johnson, a citizen member of the Distracted Driving Advisory Group who worked with Manley and other city officials to develop the ordinance.

Distracted driving has caused more fatalities annually than homicides in Austin, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. People have become used to constantly interacting with their devices, but that causes unsafe conditions for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, he said.

"It's a safety issue," Leffingwell said. "We have a huge congestion problem, which leads to more vehicles on the road, and the more people that are driving those vehicles distracted, the more serious the problem becomes."

Ultimately, drivers and bicyclists need to realize they are not as skilled at multitasking as they think, said Rondella Hawkins, a Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs officer for the city of Austin who served on the Distracted Driving Advisory Group alongside Manley and Johnson.

"It's important for the public to understand that we all think we're really good at multitasking and that we [think we] can do things like texting on a handheld phone while driving and not get distracted, but there's evidence, there's studies and fatalities where an accident occurred because of distracted driving," Hawkins said. "We do need to focus on driving. In just a split second that tragedy can happen."

Austin follows national trend

Ideally, people should deal with missed calls, texts or social media notifications once they have reached their destination, said Johnson, a bicycle and pedestrian advocate. He said people should also preplan what routes they need to take instead of starting their GPS device after getting on the road—a transition Johnson admits will initially be difficult.

"I realize that's not going to happen," he said. "People do things in the context of, 'Let me optimize time,' and optimizing time for people is doing it while they're driving."

Drivers in other states, such as New York and California, have also been forced to adapt to a hands-free-while-driving atmosphere. Johnson said he has family in both states, and because of enforcement and the penalties they quickly learned to comply with the respective laws. He said he hopes to see the same reaction occur in Austin.

The ordinance will help bicyclists avoid the dangers of distracted driving, said Al Bastidas, founder of Please Be Kind to Cyclists, an Austin bicycling advocacy group.

"As a person on a bicycle, we're the most vulnerable road users because we have no protection. We have to train our brain to ride our bicycle defensively," Bastidas said. "We've been riding our bikes without [this law] for a long time, and we're definitely going to feel a lot safer if the law gets to be enforced. It's not as easy to enforce as we think."

The Texas House of Representatives passed a statewide hands-free ordinance in 2013, but it did not pass the Senate's transportation committee. A similar law proposal passed both the state House and Senate in 2011, however Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill.

"Texting while driving is reckless and irresponsible," Perry said in 2011 when addressing his veto. "I support measures that make our roads safer for everyone, but House Bill 242 is a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults."

Gov.–elect Greg Abbott has not made clear his stance on any hands-free proposal. Calls and emails to Abbott's office were not returned in time for publication.

Because of past pushback, Leffingwell said he realizes the transition will not be easy for Austin, but he is confident the new law will prove successful.

"I realize it's going to be hard for a lot of people to make that change, but you kind of saw the same thing when all of a sudden you had to wear a seat belt," Leffingwell said.