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Denton lays groundwork for handheld ban

Denton city officials are working on updating the existing "texting ban" signs with language that will support the new "handheld ban" for drivers.

The Denton City Council in December approved a ban on the use of all handheld devices behind the wheel. The new ordinance, which goes into effect June 1, allows drivers to answer or end a call only if the phone is mounted. "Hands-free" systems, such as those using Bluetooth, are permitted.

A violation can result in a Class C misdemeanor and a fine of up to $500.

In addition to replacing existing signage, city spokeswoman Lindsey Baker said officials are considering locations for additional signs along streets and highways in the city limits. Baker did not know on Tuesday when the new signs will be installed.

"Compared to the texting ban, we've taken extra steps," Baker said. "The rollout is earlier this time, plus more expansive. We added the utility bill inserts this year and are doing more targeted outreach to educational institutions."

The current ordinance has been in place since May 2014 and bans people from simply texting while driving. But police officials said it was difficult to differentiate between people entering a phone number to make a call and texting.

When the new ordinance takes effect, Denton police will issue warnings to drivers for the first 30 days, according to Denton police spokesman Shane Kizer.

"We're just doing that as a courtesy," Kizer said. "We don't want them to take advantage of [the grace period], because we want them to take it seriously."

The city has posted reminders about the new ban and its few exceptions on its website. Drivers may use their phone to report an emergency or seek emergency assistance, but it's recommended they pull over first. The ban also excludes operators of authorized emergency vehicles and certified operators of radio frequency devices.

Meanwhile, a statewide ban on texting while driving, which was approved in March by the Texas House of Representatives, was voted out of the state Senate Committee on State Affairs on Tuesday. It's now headed to the Senate floor for a full vote.