Driving Safety

City steps in where state stepped out

As of Sept. 1, Texas drivers have several new rules of the road to follow thanks to the 81st Legislature, but the city of Austin is moving to plug two big gaps in state law.

On Aug. 27, council instructed City Manag­er Mark Ott to draft an ordinance of two parts: first, banning texting while driving, and second, creating a minimum safe passing distance for drivers overtaking vulnerable road users. Resolution sponsor Council Member Mike Martinez said, "This ordinance is really going to improve road safety, particularly as it applies to cyclists and pedestrians."

Martinez points to the established danger of driving while texting, and the resolution cites National Highway Traffic Safety Admin­i­stra­tion data showing that it increases the likelihood of a crash or near-crash by 20 times. Last session, the Legislature edged toward a full ban with the passage of House Bill 55 (requiring drivers to use hands-free sets in school zones) and HB 2730 (banning all drivers under 18 from using cell phones while in motion). Although research does not differentiate between texting and any other distracting behavior, council instructed Ott to carve out exemptions for certain acts, like reading GPS equipment. Martinez explained, "The real issue for us is that texting has become so prevalent and is so much more dangerous than pretty much anything else."

The resolution also instructs Ott to write terms requiring drivers passing vulnerable road users (according to Martinez, that's "any authorized road user who's not in a motorized vehicle," such as people in wheelchairs, maintenance crews, or cyclists) to move at least three feet away. However, the resolution is only necessary because of the fate of Senate Bill 488, which included this small extra protection right up until Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it (see "Perry and the Demise of Safe Passage," July 24). Martinez said he had waited to see what the Legislature could achieve and only acted because of the veto.

Martinez said this is all part of a larger policy of making Austin more pedestrian-friendly, including $5 million in sidewalk improvements prioritized by safety need and the planned return to council of a long-AWOL proposal to mandate sidewalk planning as a component of building permits (see "Beside the Point," Oct. 26, 2007). He expects the texting ordinance back before council in mid-October, after refinement in response to public comment. ACLU Central Texas Chapter President Debbie Russell called banning just texting and not other distractions "nebulous law," while Council Member Sheryl Cole was concerned that it not give the police excuses for "pretextual stops." While Mar­tin­ez agreed there are enforcement issues, he argued that similar rules are commonplace and effective outside of Texas. He added, "We're not breaking new ground here."

New Driving Laws in Effect

House Bill 537 requires all passengers in vehicles designed for 15 passengers or fewer to wear seat belts; also, motorcycle passengers ages 4 and under must travel in a sidecar.

Senate Bill 61 requires passengers ages 7 and under who are 4 feet 9 inches tall or less to be seated in a child passenger safety seat.

HB 3095 and SB 52 increase the minimum fine (from $250 to $500) for misuse of a parking spot reserved for persons with disabilities or the state's parking placard system.

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text messaging, safe passage, Mike Martinez, Rick Perry, SB 488

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