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Mayor will seek texting-while-driving ban

One more agenda item before it’s all over.

It’s not the first time Houston officials have broached the issue; Mayor Annise Parker has long lobbied to impose a Texaswide texting-while-driving ban. But months after another legislative session with no action, term-limited Parker said she would ask council members to consider a local ban before she leaves office at the end of the year.

The danger of using cell phones while driving is well documented, increasing crash risks by more than 23 percent, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. In 46 states and the District of Columbia, texting while driving is already banned. Though Texas is one of the few states without such a law, 40 cities including San Antonio and Austin have already opted to enact a local ban.

The city’s public safety committee considered those statistics and two proposed laws Thursday: the first a citywide ban on texting while driving and the second an effort to enforce the existing state ban on texting and cellular phone use in school zones by posting signs. Parker has faced some criticism in recent months because the city has not installed school zone signs, citing costs, and had issued no citations as of September.

“We ought to ban it citywide, that would certainly be my preference,” Parker said earlier this fall. “But I don’t know where the council is on this, and it is certainly a big policy initiative. I think we should have banned it statewide, so of course I’m supporting it here.”

Posting citywide signage is also significantly cheaper than doing so in school zones, according to Jeffrey Weatherford, deputy public works director. There are nearly 8,000 school-zone entry points, costing between $1 million and $1.4 million to appropriately alert drivers. State law prohibits handheld cell phone use in school zones, but the city has not installed the warning signs to enforce that ban.

But if the city were to opt for a Houstonwide ban, they would need to mark just 44 entry points with two signs, costing about $55,000.

While the Parker administration directed the public works department to study the cost of a texting ban, Weatherford said he would recommend City Council take up a prohibition that covers all cellular phone use while driving.

See here for more on the school zone issue. This is not the first time the subject of texting while driving has come up in Houston. There are questions about how effective such bans are, how they can be reasonably enforced, and whether they just provide another pretext for police officers to pull people over, but no one doubts that texting while driving is a dumb and dangerous thing to do. My thinking is that there are people who will do a given thing when it is legal but who will stop doing it if it becomes illegal, so passing the law against it will reduce the number of people who do it even if enforcement is next to impossible. As such, I support texting-while-driving bans. I suspect the votes will be there on Council to do it, so we’ll see what the recommended ordinance looks like.

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

West U bans texting while driving

The West University Place City Council voted on Monday night to ban texting while driving.

Drivers who text behind the wheel in within the city’s limits have one week to stop before the council votes unanimously again to ban the practice.

[…]

The ban also applies to Web browsing and accessing sites like Facebook and Twitter for drivers.

“We already had no texting in school zones during school zone hours, and we expanded that tonight to include to texting in a motor vehicle in the entire city of West University Place,” said Mayor Bob Kelly.

We first heard about this in September. The ban becomes official next week when they take a final vote on it. West U was out in front of the trend when they banned cellphone use in school zones last year, and I suspect we’ll see more stories like this around the state as well. Like it or not, this is going to become more widespread, and I’ll bet it’s a hot agenda item for the Lege in 2011.

Stop for the school buses

My route to and from work takes me through a couple of school zones, and every now and then I wind up behind a school bus and have to stop when it pulls over to discharge some riders. I think everybody knows that when you are behind a school bus and it stops, you need to stop as well, but did you know that the same is true if you’re on the opposite side of the street and you’re coming towards the bus? Well, if you didn’t know that, your ignorance could cost you.

This week, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers throughout the state are participating in a nationwide effort to keep schoolchildren safe. Troopers are riding on school buses and patrolling bus stops looking for violators as part of National School Bus Safety Week, which [ran though Friday].

In addition to troopers and Precinct 1 Constable deputies in Montgomery County, troopers in Harris County are also taking part in the safety program.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: When you see a school bus pull over to the curb, and its lights start blinking, stop. The exception is if you’re on the opposite side of a street that has a barrier in the middle – I presume a median counts, but as the story notes, a two-way turning lane does not. On my normal commute there are no such roads, so stopping is always the correct answer.

The sting part of this effort is now over, but that doesn’t mean you can zip by again. Putting aside the fact that it’s the right thing to do and not doing it puts kids in danger, police officers have been known to sit in school zones at other times as well.

Now here’s a little thought experiment for you. Suppose some entity decided to equip its school buses with cameras. These cameras turn on when the buses stop to pick up or drop off kids – which is to say, during the time when the buses’ red lights are blinking and vehicles are required by law to stop – and turn off when the bus doors close and the red lights stop blinking. If a vehicle is filmed going past the bus, on a road with no barrier, the owner of the car is sent a ticket, which can be appealed through a traffic court. Would you consider that to be a valid enforcement mechanism, or would you insist that the only legitimate way to enforce this law is by having a police officer catch people in the act? I’m just curious.

Bills about cellphones and driving

Lots of action in the cellphones and driving front for the Lege this session.

In 2007, a proposed law [to restrict cellphone usage while driving] never got beyond a legislative committee. Four months later, a Houston motorist talking on a phone struck and killed Harris County Deputy Constable Jason Norling as he wrote a traffic ticket on the shoulder of the Westpark Tollway.

Once again, victims’ families will push forward. It’s a tough sell in Texas, where lobbyists representing phone companies are influential and drivers value their independence.

With one limited exception — a 2005 law prohibiting newly licensed teenaged drivers from using a cell phone during their first six months behind the wheel — previous efforts have gone nowhere.

“The communications companies have really come out strongly against my bills in the past,” said Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, among at least nine legislators trying again.

Menendez talks on a phone while driving, but his phone is hands-free.

Lawmakers have filed several bills, mainly to prohibit text-messaging while driving, restrict phone use in a school zone or require all drivers to use hands-free devices.

No state has an outright ban on cell phone use behind the wheel. But about 30 other states — as well as several cities — impose restrictions, including bans on text-messaging or requiring hands-free devices.

Rep. Menendez’s bill is HB220, which would require the use of a hands-free device to use a phone while driving. SB582, by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R, San Antonio), appears to be identical. No state may have enacted a total ban on cellphone use, but at least one group is pushing for a national law to do so. Grits notes that the Department of Public Safety is pushing for such a law in Texas, and is also lobbying for fines related to such offenses to be added to the list of those for which the driver responsibility fee is imposed, which will surely help to swell even further the number of scofflaws.

Spokespersons for AT&T and Verizon denied their companies have lobbied against cell phone restrictions, but they’re not promoting them either. Spokesman Kerry Hibbs said AT&T supports legislation to ban text-messaging while driving and has never opposed city ordinances, including some in Texas, requiring hands-free phones in school zones.

Hmmm, that’s not quite how I remember it. Hibbs initially stated that AT&T opposed the West U ban on using cellphones in school zones, and would also oppose a statewide ban. He later clarified to say that they had “begun working with legislators on a statewide law that would provide consistent, enforceable rules concerning cell phone usage for drivers” and that they would be “more than willing to work with local governments such as West University Place on ordinances that allow hands-free calling in school zones”.

Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, is sponsoring legislation to crack down on several forms of “inattentive” driving, including reading, applying makeup, shaving, eating and drinking coffee behind the wheel. The bill wouldn’t forbid those practices, but it would allow fines to be doubled for traffic offenses to which they contributed.

Rep. Quintanilla’s bills are HB356 and HB738. This CTC forum thread is tracking more bills that have been filed that would restrict the use of wireless devices in vehicles. Keep an eye on that for more info. Thanks to Jon for the tip.