April 17, 2008
West U makes school zone cellphone ban official

As you may recall, the West U ordinance that banned the use of cellphones in moving vehicles while in school zones had received preliminary approval from its City Council, but needed to be passed a second time to become law. Despite the best efforts of AT&T, it is now official.

West University Place City Council unanimously approved a ban on the use of hand-held and hands-free devices in active school zones at its meeting on April 14, despite concerns the ordinance would violate the First Amendment and could lead to racial profiling.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and AT&T, two local lawyers and a resident spoke out against the ban while five residents and the principal of West University Elementary School spoke in favor of it.

Those speaking against it said they would be OK with the ban if it did not include hands-free devices.

"If I'm going to err, I'm going to err on the safety of those kids," said Mayor Bob Kelly.

Based on its own study of cell phone usage in the West U. school zone and studies by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, The New England Journal of Medicine and the AAA Foundation for Traffic and Safety, West U. police chief Ken Walker said, "both hands-free and hands-held (devices) are distractions."

As this was the second and final reading, the ordinance will go into effect on Aug. 1. It carries a $200 penalty for a first offense and $500 penalty for repeat offenses.

All cell phone usage -- including talking on a hand-held or hands-free device, text messaging or viewing images -- would be illegal in the three-block school zone in front of West University Elementary School, 3756 University Blvd.

I guess I'm not terribly impressed by the various objections that were brought up, on free speech and racial profiling grounds. I suppose I feel that in general, it's a fairly minor inconvenience to either avoid a school zone at the restricted times while talking on the cell, or to say "I'll call you back" and hang up, or to pull over to the curb to finish your conversation. It's possible you could be in a situation where none of those options are feasible, but that's got to be pretty exceptional. As such, I don't see this ordinance as too broad or intrusive.

Resident and attorney David A. Furlow said he would prefer West U. police be more vigorous in enforcing traffic ordinances if they are concerned about safety instead of infringing on free speech.

"I'm concerned about this ordinance being over-broad," he said, adding he believes it would not stand up to first amendment case law. "The city would pay major attorneys' fees if it loses this."

Kelly said he understands a lawsuit would be the next step if someone challenges the ordinance, but "I know that's not going to deter this council," he said during a break in the meeting.

Again, I suppose that could happen, but it seems like a relatively small risk. I could be wrong, but that's how I see it.

By the way, Rick Casey's column documenting the AT&T lobbying effort, was pretty amusing. I think they're going to have to step it up a few notches if they hope to persuade the Lege to pass a statewide law. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 17, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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