Council weighs texting limits

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Proposed ordinance would ban messaging while driving in city

The Denton City Council is expected to adopt a ban this week on texting while driving.

Denton’s ordinance, which is set to be considered Tuesday at the council’s regular meeting, would be similar to one adopted in Arlington in 2011 that prohibits drivers using their cellphone or smartphone for something other than a phone call. The ban would go into effect about May 20 and would carry a $200 fine.

Texas is one of just seven states without a ban on texting and driving. The state Legislature passed a ban in 2011, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it. Since then, a number of Texas cities have begun passing local bans.

The proposed Denton ordinance would prohibit using “a wireless communication device to send, read, or write a text message, view pictures or written text, whether transmitted by Internet or other electronic means, engage in gaming or any other use of the device, besides dialing telephone numbers or talking to another person, while operating a motor vehicle.”

Both the Traffic Safety Commission and the City Council have talked in recent months about imposing a ban. City staff also surveyed the community on the topic through EngageDenton.com. The survey results showed mixed feelings among Denton residents about an outright ban on using phones and other mobile electronics while driving, but participants generally agreed that texting while driving should be banned.

One in five traffic crashes in Texas is caused by a distracted driver, and last year 459 people were killed in accidents caused by a distracted driver, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to the National Safety Council, it is difficult to know how many people are hurt and killed each year by distracted driving — which can involve other tasks consuming a driver’s attention besides texting — because of underreporting. But the federal agency estimates that about 26 percent of all car crashes involve cellphone use, including hands-free devices. Each day, 100 people nationwide are killed in traffic accidents.

Overall, distracted-driving crashes in Texas were up 4 percent last year from 2012, according to state transportation officials.

Denton’s ordinance includes an exception for drivers to text if the vehicle is stopped and out of traffic lanes, or in a life-and-death emergency. Drivers would still be permitted to use their smartphones’ GPS if it is affixed to the vehicle, to make a phone call or to use the phone for texting if it is done through voice-activation or other hands-free methods.

The ordinance does not apply to anyone driving an emergency vehicle while acting in an official capacity or a federal licensee using a radio-frequency device.

Denton’s ordinance would not apply to people driving Interstate 35, 35E, 35W or their frontage and access roads. During council work sessions on the topic, Mayor Mark Burroughs has said he was concerned about the city’s ability to enforce the ban on federal highways without posting signs at the city limits.

The staff and commission originally recommended a citywide ban on using handheld devices while driving, extending a statewide ban that has been in effect in school zones since 2009. The recommendation was made, in part, because it would be easier for police officers to enforce.

Police Chief Lee Howell said that Denton officers have written about 100 tickets per year to drivers found violating the state’s ban on using handheld devices in school zones. The proposed texting ban wouldn’t affect the school zone ban, Howell said.

He said he believed it would be a little more difficult for officers to enforce a texting ban than a handheld ban.

“It requires the officer’s observation, but it’s not too much different from [observing] a seat beat violation,” Howell said.

He said he also hoped Denton drivers would make the change needed once news of the ban gets out and an educational campaign gets underway.

The City Council asked that the staff put together a local educational campaign about the dangers of distracted driving as part of the ban. The city staff has allocated about $4,700 from transportation and police department funding to pay for such a campaign that will include video public service announcements, signs, bumper stickers and other outreach.

Tuesday’s council meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.


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