November 14, 2007
Highland Park bans cellphone talking while driving in school zones

We heard about it two weeks ago, and now it's official: You must hang up and drive in a Highland Park school zone.

Drivers will no longer be able to talk on handheld cellphones while passing through school zones in Highland Park.

The ban, which goes into effect on Dec. 1, will be in effect during school zone times only -- typically early mornings and mid-afternoons. It's believed to be the first restriction on cellphone use while driving in Texas.

The Town Council passed the ban in a unanimous vote during its regular council meeting on Monday. Officials added that within six months, the council expects to revisit the issue, possibly to expand the restriction townwide.

At least one other city, neighboring University Park, is considering a similar restriction. There, the City Council referred the issue to its public safety committee, which also will explore whether the city should enact a citywide ban instead of school zones only.

The University Park council could vote on restrictions as early as its Dec. 4 meeting.

Meanwhile, Highland Park Department of Public Safety Director Darrell Fant said that after a recent meeting of North Texas police chiefs, a few asked to see Highland Park's proposed ordinance. But officials from several cities, including Richardson, Farmers Branch, Addison and Southlake, said Monday that they have not looked at pursuing cellphone restrictions in their cities.

It would not shock me to see this idea spread to other cities. Politically, it seems like a no-brainer to me. I don't think it'll happen in most places without an actual push, but once there is one, I'd expect fairly easy passage.

Cellphone restrictions of varying degrees have become more common across the country in recent years, but their effectiveness in improving safety hasn't been consistent.

Studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in New York, one of the first states to prohibit handheld cellphone use while driving, showed that after an initial drop-off in cellphone use, within 16 months drivers went back to their old habits.

"Even though police were writing tickets, it wasn't visible to the average driver," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the insurance industry-funded research organization.

Mr. Rader said that drivers won't comply with the law unless there's a consistent message that it's being enforced. That has worked in the case of seatbelt laws, with "Click it or Ticket" campaigns combined with news media attention, but he said that people won't change their habits unless they think there's a good chance they'll be caught.

Probably true. But then, I think that's the case with most traffic ordinances. If you think you can get away with it, many people will try. Speaking from my own personal experience - "I'm just going with the flow of traffic" - rationalization is a powerful tool, especially when the risk of negative consequences are low.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 14, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Highland Park (and University Park) are kind of uniquely situated to want to do this - the two of them are entirely surrounded by the City of Dallas, and each has a major city street which passes through it, past several schools, and which drops from 3 lanes each way in Dallas to 1 lane each way. There's a huge amount of commuter traffic driving past Highland Park schools, and most of it is driving from Dallas to Dallas. (What's more, because of the congestion, it's almost impossible to speed in Highland Park during the day.) I imagine the impact of this ordinance on Highland Park residents will be fairly small.

Posted by: Chris Koeberle on November 14, 2007 8:44 AM