In the wake of the many injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving (an estimated 421,000 people in 2012), many cities and states are passing hands-free laws to help protect the safety of their residents. Austin is now among that list, having recently adopted Ordinance No. 20140828-041, which makes it illegal to operate portable electronic devices while driving a car or riding a bike.
Prohibited devices include cell phones, PDAs, mp3 players, e-readers, portable computers, pagers, GPS systems, electronic games, or any other type of portable communication or computing devices. However, drivers can still utilize hands-free systems and permanently fixed GPS systems. There is also an exception for calls to 911 or 311 to report an accident or a crime, but drivers are highly encouraged to pull over and stop before making these calls if at all possible.
State-wide laws currently only ban cell phone use by new drivers, drivers under 18, those driving in school zones, and bus drivers. However, shortly after Austin passed its hands-free law, San Antonio followed suit. Other Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas still have yet to pass hands-free legislation.
Austin’s new hands-free law goes into effect on January 1, 2015. After this date, driving while operating these types of portable electronic devices will be a citable offense, with a fine of up to $500. The city hopes that this new hands-free law, like the ban on texting while driving that is already in place, will help cyclists and those operating motor vehicles to focus and pay more attention to their surroundings, ultimately resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities.
Distracted driving endangers not only the driver operating the electronic device, but other drivers, passengers, cyclists, pedestrians, and even bystanders. With the numerous accidents and deaths each year caused by distracted driving, passing this ordinance in Austin is definitely a step in the right direction. So far there has been a great deal of publicity surrounding the new law. Let’s just hope that the momentum continues and that the law will be strictly enforced after it goes into effect so that the streets of Austin will be safer for all.