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Denton taking poll on cellphone ban

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Congress hasn’t done it, although the National Transportation Safety Board says it should. While many states have done it, Texas hasn’t.

So, Denton is putting the question to residents: Do you favor banning the use of handheld wireless communication devices while operating a motor vehicle in Denton?

Last week, the Denton City Council heard a presentation from the staff, on behalf of the city’s Traffic Safety Commission, on an ordinance that would ban drivers in the city from using handheld electronics — cellphones, tablets, GPS devices and more. Council members said they were willing to continue the discussion, but in the meantime, they asked the staff to poll residents on the topic.

According to Kevin McGinnis, a graphic and website administrator for the city, the current poll on is pacing a little slower than previous polls, but it’s open for three more weeks. So far, about 200 people have viewed the poll and about 40 have voted.

When the city polled residents about a proposed smoking ban in early 2012, 295 residents voted on the topic through Engage Denton. The city staff was able to sort the votes by age and gender, as well as voters’ ZIP codes, a feature the Denton City Council found informative as it considered a partial smoking ban, which it eventually adopted.

So far, the city’s poll on a handheld ban is lagging, too, behind the count Denton resident Gilmore Morris got on a handwritten petition he circulated last summer. He gathered 125 signatures favoring a ban on handhelds.

“Everyone who signed had a story to tell about the problem,” Morris said.

A driver’s education teacher at Denton High School for 25 years, Morris said distractions have always been a problem for drivers.

Federal statistics for crashes involving distracted drivers show the problem is substantial. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed, compared to 3,267 in 2010. Another 387,000 people were hurt in crashes that involved distracted drivers, compared to 416,000 injured in 2010.

Moreover, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have found that text messaging creates a major distraction because it requires the driver’s visual, manual and cognitive attention. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average 4.6 seconds.

At 55 mph, that means a driver — and any passengers — would travel the length of a football field while the driver is looking elsewhere.

Morris serves on the city’s Traffic Safety Commission and brought the question to the group last year and again this year after the Texas Legislature failed to pass a ban.

The proposed ordinance for Denton is similar to one recently passed in El Paso. Officials in the police department and municipal court recommended that if the city adopt a ban, it be a total ban, rather than just a texting ban, for better enforcement.

Moreover, states that have passed texting-only bans have seen their accident rates rise, according to Denton Police Chief Lee Howell. Officials believe that may be because drivers are trying to hide their activity, which takes their eyes off the road even longer.

According to researchers at Virginia Tech, who published their findings in April 2013, reaching for a device, dialing or texting ultimately increases a driver’s risk of getting into an accident by three times.

The Engage Denton website gives residents a chance to make comments on the issue as well as cast their vote for “yes” or “no” on the ban. Four residents had made comments as of Tuesday afternoon, with two calling for changes in how people think about allowing themselves to be distracted while driving.

Morris said he agreed that education is important, but having a law against the practice offers its own kind of persuasion.

“Too many are in a state of denial about the risks,” he said.

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