Proposed Fix for the Austin Texting Ban

Last October, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that would outlaw texting while driving. The ordinance is scheduled to go into effect beginning of January.

Several people (including myself) raised concerns at the time of passage. Mayor Pro Tem Martinez postponed enactment from November to January to give the City an opportunity to do a public outreach campaign, as well as allow the community to review those concerns.

During this time, the ordinance has been discussed three times before various committees and commissions. Tonight it's scheduled to be discussed at the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission meeting.

At the time of passage, I raised concerns that the ordinance language was confusing and overly broad. People weren't sure what was and what was not covered. Activities that might be considered safe and reasonable were prohibited. The large number of exceptions (known as "affirmative defenses") written into the ordinance was a strong signal of these problems. The dialog since passage has confirmed them.

Working with Urban Transpotation Commission Chair Rich MacKinnon, I tried to create alternate language that would remedy the confusion, while maintaining the intent of Council. You can view our proposal here:

http://docs.google.com/View?id=ddcmmfrr_41g9xb5mrk

Proposed deletions are styled with strike-through text. Proposed additions are styled with blue text.

Our proposed subsection (A) is based on language that originates in California. Everybody who read this legislation appreciated its simplicity and clarity, so it seemed a good model for Austin. Subsection (A) presents a clear, bright line prohibition on texting, which studies show is the most significant distracting activity.

Subsections (B) and (C) are intended to remedy two issues with the California language.

First, the California law contains a prohibition on "reading" that is problematic. If an alert pops up on your phone and you look at it, you would be in violation if it contains an SMS, but not in violation if its a "battery low" warning. That doesn't make sense. That's precisely the sort of morass that exists in the current ordinance that we sought to correct.

Second, the California law is focused on texting and Council wanted something broader. Council wanted, for instance, to prohibit web surfing with your iPhone while driving.

Subsection (B) addresses these two concerns by placing a broad prohibition on all dangerous handheld uses of a cell phone. (Except for actually talking on the phone. That's permitted by the current ordinance and changes to that are outside the scope of this proposal.)

Subsection (C) provides clarity by limiting use of subsection (B) for what's commonly called a secondary offense. This means that peace officers wouldn't be pulling people over for using cell phones. Instead, they'd pull somebody over for swerving or running a stop sign or not watching the road, and then cite them under subsection (B) if they were found to be using a cell phone dangerously. This is consistent with the way the Austin Police Department says they plan to enforce the texting ordinance. It provides fairness and clarity that a person being cited for distracted driving really was engaged in distracting behavior.

Last night the Urban Transportation Commission voted to endorse this proposal. I plan to present this to the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission tonight for discussion. If you are interested, watch us tonight on cable Channel 6, or streamed live on the Internet.

I hope this revised language brings two results. First, it provides clear focus on "texting while driving", which studies show as the primary distraction threat. Further, it addresses the problem of distractions from handheld phone use fairly and aggressively. What do you think?

Keep in mind the question before us is not whether or not Austin will have a texting ordinance – that's already decided by enacted Council policy. The issue is whether this language represents an improvement over the ordinance scheduled to go into effect next month.

If you are interested in this issue, you may want to become a fan of the Refactor the Text Ban Facebook Page.