Austin American Statesman: Gov. Greg Abbott calls for roll back of city cellphone ordinances
This article appeared in the Austin American Statesman on July 13, 2017.
In the upcoming special session looming over lawmakers, Abbott has called for a state law that would roll back any local ordinances that ban mobile device use beyond texting while driving. And if legislators heed the call, more than 90 cities with ordinances pertaining to cellphone use and driving could be trumped by state law.
In a news release from the governor’s office, two legislators, Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, with Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, announced they would author legislation that would effectively nullify any city ordinances on drivers using cellphones.
“Now that Texas has passed a statewide texting while driving ban, I am calling for legislation that fully preempts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles,” Abbott said in the release.
Abbott said the legislation is necessary in order to avoid a “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices throughout the state.”
The initiative is one of 20 priorities Abbott announced in early June for the 30-day legislative session starting July 18.
The state law, House Bill 62, only addresses texting and prohibits the use of handheld phones to “read write or send an electronic message” while driving.
The ban does not cover use of the phone’s global positioning system or music apps, and drivers would have a built-in defense against prosecution if the phone was being used to report a crime or an emergency. Texting would be punishable by a fine of up to $99 for first-time offenders and $200 for repeat offenses.
Since 2009, more than 90 cities across Texas have adopted cellphone ordinances that either ban all uses of wireless communications devices while driving, texting while driving or texting and other manual uses of wireless communication devices while driving, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Locally, a number of cities including Austin, Lakeway and San Marcos have banned the use of any handheld cellphones and many other portable electronic devices while driving.
Neither Pflugerville nor Round Rock have any type of cellphone or texting while driving ban in place.
Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan said in the six years he’s been on the city council, council members have never considered implementing a texting while driving or handheld device ban.
“Usually things are driven by the people and it’s not one of those topics that has gotten a push from our citizens with a number of people getting behind it,” he said. “I think a number of people in Round Rock would prefer the governor stay out of their business.”
Morgan said the state sometimes does not know what’s best for cities.
“The irony of what the governor wants to do is he is weakening some city ordinances across the state, which I would argue — like Austin — makes their cities safer,” Morgan said. “What may be good for Houston may not be good for Round Rock, and what may be good for Round Rock may not be good for Frisco.”
Morgan said the state should not take away local control. “The one thing the state has one control over is school finance and that’s a nightmare,” he said.
The effect of a statewide texting ban while driving will be seen, he said, though he added that it starts with the accountability of drivers.
“There are a lot of things that distract people other than cellphones,” he said. “I see people eating, shaving and putting makeup on.”
Pflugerville Mayor Victor Gonzales said the city welcomes legislation that creates a safer driving environment, but thinks the state’s aim to roll back local ordinances is “misguided.”
“I think that while the governor is elected to oversee state operations, municipalities are always closer to citizens and community on a regular basis … that’s why we have municipalities to self-govern the local community and make the best ordinances,” he said. “If the governor decides to roll back a number of local ordinances, it’s always going to have an adverse effect.”
Gonzales said the city council recently discussed implementing a cellphone ban but chose to table the issue once the state legislation passed.
In western Travis County, the cities of Rollingwood, West Lake Hills, Bee Cave and Lakeway all have ordinances prohibiting the use of handheld electronic communication devices while driving, whether a driver is using them to text, make a phone call, program their GPS or any other operation which requires using hands.
The West Lake Hills, Bee Cave and Lakeway ordinances even go further than Austin’s ordinance in that they prohibit the use of handheld electronic devices on a public roadway at all, even if the driver is at a complete stop.
Lakeway Mayor Joe Bain said he is glad to see the state enact regulations on texting while driving, though he has some issues with the passed legislation.
“The bill they passed and that Gov. Abbott signed is limited to texting, so it’s difficult to enforce,” he said. “Immediately when a cop stops (a driver) they’re going to say, ‘Oh no, I was dialing a number.’ And even the law says they won’t be able to take the phone from them to look and see what they did.”
Many in the Central Texas law enforcement community support laws limiting cellphone use for drivers, including at least two area police chiefs who back statewide regulations instead of various city ordinances on the matter.
Bastrop Police Chief Steve Adcock commended the state ban on texting while driving, which he said could be contributing to fewer crashes in the area.
“I have seen many times people swerving on the road only to discover they are texting,” he said. “Our smart phones are a huge benefit but have deadly consequences when used while driving.”
Adcock also said a statewide law concerning cellphone use while driving would be less confusing for drivers.
Smithville Police Chief Mike Maugere said he is also against city ordinances limiting cellphone use for drivers, since many may not know whether they are prohibited from using a cellphone while driving in a particular city.