Photo by Flickr user Jim Legans, Jr.
Photo by Flickr user Jim Legans, Jr.

San Antonio City Council unanimously approved a Distracted Driving Ordinance on Thursday morning, banning almost all use of cellphones or “mobile devices” while driving. Drivers will still be able to use “hands free” technology and make emergency calls, but texting, taking photos, surfing the web, even using GPS mapping services – anything that takes a driver’s eyes away from the road ahead – could result in a $200 fine. Any law enforcement or peace officer authorized to issue citations on city streets, including school district officers, can cite a distracted driver.

The ordinance goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The San Antonio Police Department will initiate a public awareness campaign, “Keep ‘Em On The Wheel,” about the new rule that will include radio and television public service announcements, media ride-alongs, both permanent and temporary signage on City streets and state/federal highways, and social media. For 30 days after the ordinance goes into effect, violators will be given a warning.

There are so many illegal uses of cellphones now (gaming, checking a bank account, etc.), that it’s probably easier to list what the ordinance allows. According to the SAPD presentation, the ordinance will not apply to “a person who is on private property or legally parked, using a hands-free device (e.g. bluetooth), operating an emergency vehicle, reporting illegal activity, communicating with emergency response personnel, (or) preventing injury to a person or property.”

During the council meeting, many anecdotal stories told by citizens and council members reflected the alarming local, state, and national statistics that indicate it’s about time distracted driving becomes a crime.

SAPD’s presentation to City Council included statistics from the Texas Department of Transportation that distracted driving contributed to 90,378 crashes in 2013. Of those, 18,468 resulted in serious injuries, 453 were fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported more than 3,300 fatalities and 400,000 injured in vehicle accidents nationwide in 2013 connected to distracted driving.

In San Antonio, there were more than 250 vehicle crashes in 2013 that SAPD directly attributed to cellphone use.

One of those crashes involved the Abrams family, who came to the Council Thursday to support the ordinance in remembrance of  6-year-old Brandon Abrams who was struck and killed by a driver reaching down for their phone on Jan. 24, 2013.

“I confronted the kid (the driver) and I asked him, ‘What were you doing?’” Brandon’s father, Troy Abrams recalled the scene of the accident. He arrived three minutes after the collision and watched his son pass away. “He said, “Oh, I was grabbing my phone.’”

A frivolous text or Facebook notification is clearly not worth it. Just like all the commercials and billboards say, “It can wait.”

Troy Abrams shares the heartbreaking details of the day his son, 6-year-old Brandon, was struck and killed by a distracted driver with media after City Council passed the Distracted Driver Ordinance. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Troy Abrams is interviewed by local media after City Council passed the Distracted Driver Ordinance. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Brandon was on a neighborhood sidewalk when he was struck by the speeding vehicle, said Steve Abrams, Brandon’s grandfather. The boy’s body was found more than 40 feet away from the point of impact.

“(This ordinance) means that (San Antonio is) making its streets safer – not only in our neighborhoods but on the highway. There’s numerous times that – now when I’m driving and I see someone swerving and speeding, (I used to think) oh be careful looks like they’re drunk. Now it’s like, be careful I think they’re texting. Move over, pass them.”

Just as drinking effects your judgement, so does engaging in several activities that require concentration at once. Humans have selective attention – which causes inattentional blindness.

To those that would reject an ordinance like this based on a fear that the government is reaching too far into personal actions, Troy explains, “There’s a point where regulation is not good, but the city (ordinance) is not trying to regulate whether or not you can talk in the car, they’re just regulating the manner that it’s safe to do so. ”

Sure, you can send that text. But do it before or after you get behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle.

District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher initiated the ordinance in August, and in October the Public Safety Committee approved the proposal to move forward to a Council vote.  Gallagher wrote an op-ed published in the Rivard Report outlining the need for the ordinance that expands the limited state law and existing ordinances regarding distracted driving.

A 2008 ordinance prohibits only texting on all City streets and a 2010 ordinance prohibits all use of mobile devices in a school zone. The latter will be repealed as the new ordinance covers that ground.

The effectiveness of the ordinance will come down to the awareness campaign as well as enforcement – the latter is a tricky task. Law enforcement will need to witness an often very quick motion driver of eyes and head.

“On my motion, the ordinance includes a request for a report from the City a year from now regarding the effectiveness of the law,” stated District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier in an email. “At the end of 2015, the City will review and report on the statistics to see whether or not this law reduces the number of crashes in San Antonio.”

*Featured/top image: Photo by Flickr user Jim Legans, Jr. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...