The City's new ordinance will prohibit texting while driving. Photo courtesy of Jason Weaver/Flickr.
The City's new ordinance will prohibit texting while driving. Photo courtesy of Jason Weaver/Flickr.

One of City Council’s most important acts in 2014 was passing a “hands free” driving ordinance that prohibits the use of hand-held cellphones while operating a motor vehicle. The new ordinance goes into effect Jan. 1, and police will start issuing tickets on Feb. 1.

It’s an important public safety measure. Texas remains one of only six states that still allows drivers to send and read text messages on their cellphones while simultaneously operating a motor vehicle, thanks to Gov. Rick Perry’s veto pen. There are so-called distracted driving laws in 14 states and Washington, D.C., that prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones for any reason other than emergencies while driving.

In this instance, City Council has acted where the state’s leadership has failed to act.

I fully support the “hands on the wheel” ordinance. Good laws help people do the right thing. As a vehicle driver and a deadline-driven journalist, I give in to temptation too often and drive and talk on my cellphone at the same time. The cyclist in me knows such behavior is a danger to myself, my passengers, and to others. I’ve improved considerably since our two sons, Nicolas and Alexander, spent two years living in Massachusetts, one of the 14 states that bans using cellphones while driving, and moved back to San Antonio intolerant of my misbehavior. Nothing like a couple of Millennials ordering you to put down your smart phone.

The new ordinance is all the reason I need now for self-imposed zero tolerance policy. Readers can get a contrary view on the Rivard Report by reading Phone-Free Driving: Look, Ma! No Hands!

District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher
District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher

Another remarkable aspect of the City’s new hands-free ordinance is that it was successfully shepherded from proposal to ordinance by District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher in his first year in office as an appointed interim council member. It’s a significant public policy initiative and accomplishment that easily could have failed simply because of its scope and many individuals and interests that oppose such regulation.

Gallagher is a retired Air Force colonel with a strong background in public affairs and media relations. He once worked in the White House for the Great Communicator himself, President Ronald Reagan. He also served as media relations director for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in Operation Desert Storm. I could go on, but you can read his bio here. A guy who has worked the halls of the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff have their offices understands organizational structure and how to get something done.

“Everyone I spoke with on the Council had a personal experience with someone cutting them off the road while talking or texting, or a family members or friend who had been in wrecks with people using their cellphones, so this wasn’t that difficult, because everyone immediately understood the problem,” Gallagher said this week.

I asked Gallagher if he, like me, succumbs on occasion to conducting business while driving his vehicle.

“I am absolute about it. I put the thing in my pocket so I can’t get to it, strap on my seat belt, and go,” Gallagher said. “There are some studies that are starting to declare our use of cellphones can become an addiction, and that really speaks to what the problem is we are addressing.”

In fact, the growing body of research available on the link between cellphone use and increased risk of accidents and fatalities now reaches back to 1997, when the New England Journal of Medicine published the first study I was able to find on the subject.

A more contemporary special report was published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which noted that vehicle crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths in the United States. Legislative action was essential, the report noted, but so are behavior-change programs that address teen addiction to their smart phones. The National Safety Council has done a good job of collating a lot of the available research on this page.

City Council’s ban on hand-held cellphones is all the more remarkable given the big steps backwards City Council took on three other important transportation-related issues in 2014.

One was the decision to remove bike lanes from South Flores Street without any evidence to support the claims of inconvenienced bike lane opponents whose real issue seemed to be an unwillingness to share the road cloaked in public safety claims. Mayor Julián Castro questioned the legitimacy of District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran’s initiative on the matter, but he had one foot out the door on his way to a Cabinet position in the Obama administration and did not vote against the measure.

A second was the decision to derail VIA Transit’s admittedly problematic streetcar project. The third was Council’s inability to stand up to an outdated and service-deficient taxi industry and find a reasonable way to approve rideshare services by Uber and Lyft.

In all three instances, City Council gave in to loud opposition and detractors – like the firefighters union who ran the anti-streetcar petition campaign – without carefully weighing the facts and searching for thoughtful compromises. In the end, we remain a big city with few transportation options and too many streets in the urban core where commuting by bicycle or on foot remains unnecessarily dangerous.

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg
District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg

The Comprehensive Planning Committee, led by District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, is studying transportation as part of its work to create a new long-term strategic plan. With city elections scheduled for May 9, the period of interim officeholders will come to an end. An elected Council and Mayor will face the serious task of setting the city on its way to developing more progressive transportation strategies.

I asked Gallagher if he intends to run in the May elections, and if there are other policy initiatives on his agenda. It’s hard to imagine anyone challenging him.

“I will tell you that, yes, indeed, I will run in May, and I do have a laundry list of things to do when I get elected, most of which are district-related,” Gallagher said, “but one big issue I’m serious about is Council pay. Something has got to be done about that. Not for myself: I’m a retired military officer and am okay with my pension, but for others on the council, this is a very serious problem. The mayor has asked me to be on that committee, and I am going to work very hard to help get the job done.”

District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, right before the meeting that confirmed her as mayor of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Charter Review Commission, which includes 13 citizens appointed by Mayor Taylor and City Council, is being chaired by former St. Mary’s University President Charles Cottrell. The commission met for the first time on Dec. 18 with Mayor Taylor. You can click here to read the commission’s charge. Council pay is among several proposed amendments to the 1950s-era city charter that the commission will consider.

The commission’s timeline is short. Mayor Taylor hopes to win City Council support to place the proposed changes on the May 9 city ballot. At least one Council member, District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier, has told me the issue of Council pay and other charter reforms would fare better if put on the November ballot in a presidential election year when turnout will be more robust, but that would mean waiting until 2016. Too long, perhaps, for some Council members.

*Top/featured image: The City’s new ordinance will prohibit texting while driving. Photo courtesy of Jason Weaver via Flickr.

Related stories:

Phone-Free Driving: Look, Ma! No Hands!

San Antonio Drivers: Hands Free or Busted Come January

Banning Cellphones Would Not Ban Distraction

District 10 Councilman Calls for Ban on Handheld Phones While Driving

Should San Antonio Ban Driving With Hand-Held Cell Phones?

Cell Phone Security Firm VYSK Moves to Midtown

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.