In April, a Council Consideration Request was submitted by District 4 Councilmember Leticia Cantu to contemplate a San Antonio law banning texting and driving. It was the first step towards a law that would ban any non-call use of cell phones while driving in the Alamo City.
“First and foremost, I would like to reduce the number of deaths and associated injuries related to texting while driving,” Cantu said. “I would also like to improve safety for all roadway users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, runners, and persons in wheel chairs.”
More than 500,000 people were injured as a result of distracted driving in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. The classification includes texting, as well as eating, drinking, or talking to passengers.
But far from storming the roadways with a blizzard of tickets, San Antonio’s finest have issued only seven warnings in the nearly two months the ordinance has been effective. An SAPD spokesperson said the city is under a 90-day “grace period,” during which a warning is the most severe punishment that can be given.
The Police Department would not speak directly on the difficulties of enforcing this law or what sort of expectations it had for enforcing it, but simply said in a statement to the Current that it would enforce the law like any other. “Officers are trained and experienced in enforcing traffic laws, and we continue to inform motorists of this new ordinance during the grace period,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Austin officers were a little more realistic.
In the state capital, texting and browsing the web is banned, but talking on a cell phone while driving is allowed. Enforcement is difficult for obvious reasons, said Lt. Craig Cannon of the Austin Police Department’s Highway Enforcement Command. “Say you’re driving down the road, and you’re scrolling through your contacts, you’re not breaking the law. To see you texting while driving down the road is what we need to stop you. It’s very tough.”
Cannon said that APD has written 85 citations since the city’s law went into effect February 1 —an average of 8.5 per month. “Our numbers have not been that many at all because we have to be able to prove that you are texting,” he said.
El Paso, in a more severe reaction to distracted driving statistics, banned in March all cell phone use while driving that is not hands-free. To San Antonio’s three warnings per month, El Paso is averaging about 550 citations per month.
All these cities’ laws might soon be moot, however, gone in favor of a state-wide standard. Among 10 bills already pre-filed on the topic, San Antonio State Senator Carlos Uresti filed a bill banning texting while driving.* His colleague Representative Trey Martinez Fischer chose to hone in on drivers of passenger buses only. Meanwhile, another San Antonian, Senator Jeff Wentworth, filed a bill apparently as restrictive as El Paso’s “hands-free only” law.
Would Texas be safer with the El Paso model? “We did see a decrease in traffic collisions, but it is too early to tell if that is part of the cell phone ordinance,” said Mike Baranyay, an El Paso public information officer. The city has seen about 100 fewer accidents per month, he said, though the monthly average still hovers around 1,500 to 1,800.
* Due to an editing error, this sentence originally stated Uresti's bill would ban texting while driving in inside school zones, which is already illegal if a warning is posted.