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Should the City of San Antonio pass an outright ban on the use of hand-held cell phones and other electronic devices such as tablets while driving a vehicle? A city ordinance bans texting while driving in San Antonio, and a state law bans the use of cell phones in active school zones.
It’s legal, however, to drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a cell phone.
“If it’s not safe to drive and use a hand-held cell phone in a school zone, it obviously is not safe to do it anywhere else,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told members of City Council Thursday.
It’s a message McManus has delivered without success to past Councils, but this time he might make headway before he retires at year’s end.
McManus and Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh were on hand to talk about a $1 million Comprehensive Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant the City has received from the Texas Department of Transportation. The annual grant funds police overtime for several public safety transportation initiatives.
“It pays for department overtime to combat the incidence of DWI,” McManus said.
Texas has the worst DWI rate in the nation, and San Antonio has the worst DWI rate of any major city in the state. About 10 people a day are arrested for DWI in San Antonio, and more than 40 percent of those arrested are repeat offenders. So the funds are essential to addressing the problem.
“The same grant also funds enforcement of safe pedestrian and cycling activity on vulnerable roadways, and helps us enforce the ordinance against so-called ‘distracted driving,’ including the ban on texting and using cell phones in school zones while driving,” McManus said.
Normally, the item on the Council’s “consent agenda”would have been one of several items approved without discussion or debate. District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, however, wanted to talk about it.
“I have received numerous complaints from people in my district and people all over the city about near-accidents they’ve suffered, and I’ve spoken with my Council colleagues and every one of them has similar stories,” Gallagher said later. “I am going to push as hard as I can to see this gets before Council and the Public Safety Committee. It should not be a big problem moving this issue forward because everyone has had a personal experience and the solution will be life saving.”
McManus said that as long as cell phone use while driving is legal, the anti-texting ordinance will be challenging to enforce.
Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a no-texting while driving bill in 2011 and opposed efforts to pass it in 2013, declaring the legislation a “government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” Supporters charged the governor with ignoring data that shows hand-held cell phone use and distracted driving is responsible for a growing percentage of Texas vehicle fatalities.
More than 400 of the 3,048 traffic fatalities in Texas in 2011 were attributed to distracted driving, according to the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions, an insurance industry trade group, which reported that reaction time for drivers texting is several seconds slower than it is for drivers who are not distracted.
Bus drivers and young, newly licensed vehicle drivers are prohibited by state law from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Critics point out that it is contradictory to suggest that such behavior is unsafe for these two groups, yet safe and acceptable for all others.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that 3,328 were killed and 421,000 were injured in distracted driving crashes nationwide in 2012, and that 71 percent of teenagers and young adults say they text while driving. Twenty percent of all teens admit to having extended text message conversations while driving. The occurrence of distracted driving accidents is climbing at a rate of nearly 10 percent a year, according to the federal government.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg said he was nearly run off the road this week by a distracted driver in an oversized pickup truck barreling down I-10 while talking on his cell phone.
“I drive a Prius and fortunately I was watching him come speeding up behind me and then as he was passing me at a high rate of speed he swerved right over into me,” Nirenberg said. “I swerved over to the next lane, which fortunately was empty. If I had not been focused I would have been under his axles. It was as close a call as I’ve had in years.”
Nirenberg said the same week he was heading home from City Hall on I-10 West and watched a young woman behind the wheel, “staring down at her lap, weaving across lanes and speeding, occasionally looking up.”
It was obvious she was engaged in a text conversation.
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier expressed misgivings about an outright ban on cell use while driving unless the ordinance addresses other behaviors.
“I’ve seen women putting on make-up while driving, and that’s scary,” he said.
Critics of tougher laws regulating hand-held cell phone use have used examples of people grooming or eating food while driving as reasons to block laws that ban cell phone use by drivers.
“Cell phones are the single biggest distraction for drivers, but a distracted driving law would be even more beneficial than just banning hand-held cell phones,” McManus agreed.
In fact, federal transportation officials cite texting as far and away the most dangerous form of distracted driving.
“Because text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction,” a federal government report states on Distraction.gov, a government site created to raise awareness about the fatal consequences of distracted driving.
Forty-four states and Washington D.C. now ban texting while driving, leaving Texas as one of the few outlier states. Twelve states and Washington D.C. prohibit any use of hand-held cell phones while driving. The federal government reports the following activities as the leading causes of distracted driving crashes:
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- Cell phone or smart phone use
- Eating or drinking
- Talking to passengers
- Reading, including using maps
- Using navigation systems
- Watching a video
- Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player
Should Councilman Gallagher and his colleagues need a high profile artist to get behind their cause they might consider enlisting the services of Texas country star and singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen. According to an article in Texas Monthly, the Kerrville resident suggested in a tweet that drivers tweet out #X before they get in their cars so friends know not to call or text them until they sign back on when they are out of their vehicles.
The problem, of course, is that Keen’s solution requires voluntary participation. As Chief McManus surely knows, such behavior will have to be declared illegal and police will have to enforce the ordinance before everyone takes it seriously and conforms.
*Featured/top image: Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ricardo Velasquez.