By Caleb Vierkant
There were 3,179 people killed and about 431,000 people wounded in car crashes involving distracted drivers just in the year 2014, according to an article by the FCC titled “The Dangers of Distracted Driving.” The dangers of using a cell phone while driving are well known, yet there is currently no nation-wide ban on it. The city of College Station, however, has taken a definite stance on the side of safety.
Starting Nov. 9, a new law will ban the use of cell phones while driving within city limits. The new law, Ordinance No. 2016-3797, was passed on Aug. 11. It bans the use of a hand-held communication device (e.g. cell phones) by anybody operating a motor vehicle or a bicycle. Failure to comply, according to the ordinance, will result in being “deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punishable by a fine of not less than Twenty-five Dollars ($25.00) nor more than Two Hundred Dollars ($200.00).”
College Station Police Chief Scott McCollum helped draft the ordinance and presented it to the city council on Aug. 11. He says the objective of this new law is to change behavior and hopefully save lives, not to write a lot of tickets.
“We’re going through an educational campaign right now,” says Chief McCollum. “Since the issue has gone before the council we’ve been working through a variety of conduits to try and develop an education campaign. We’ve done several radio show spots. We’ve done TV. We’re trying to take every opportunity we can to talk with somebody about hands-free. We’re working on a series of commercials that will start running soon that will allow us to convey the new ordinance. We’re also working with Texas A&M University to get the message out.”
Chief McCollum adds that the education campaign is similar to one in the 1980s that urged people to wear a seatbelt while driving. In that effort, only 14 percent of Americans used a safety belt, despite 15 years of educational campaigns. However, after a shift of strategy that not only included education but also the enactment of a mandatory seatbelt law and high visibility enforcement the compliance rate rose over 85 percent.
There are 66 other cities in Texas that have similar laws against using a phone while driving. The two main types of these laws are “texting and driving” laws and “hands-free” laws. The city of Austin initially had a law against texting and driving, but switched to a ban on any use of a phone while operating a vehicle. College Station has gone with a hands-free ordinance, as it is more enforceable than a texting and driving law.
“With texting and driving you have to be able to articulate that they were actually texting and driving,” says Chief McCollum. He continues by explaining that according to other departments, nine times out of ten officers would get an excuse like they were making a phone call or using navigation. “It was hard to prove that someone was texting and driving. Since they [Austin] switched from texting and driving to a hands-free ordinance they’ve seen a [much higher level of] compliance. Instead of splitting the hairs by saying ‘I wasn’t texting and driving,’ it’s really starting to change driver behavior. That is the ultimate goal.”
While the law goes into effect on Nov. 9, there will be a grace period where police officers will only issue warnings instead of tickets. Chief McCollum was reluctant to put a hard date on this grace period, but he says it would be generous. The ordinance also bans the use of tablets, laptops, or any other electronic device. Using a phone while riding a bicycle is also no longer allowed. The ordinance does, however, allow people to use their phone if the car is at a complete stop, or in an emergency situation. Using a cell phone for GPS purposes will also be allowed, as long as the phone is affixed to the vehicles dashboard or windshield.
“I would like to believe that everyone will become attuned to the dangers of distracted driving and it would happen quickly,” says Chief McCollum, “but in reality it will probably take some time. Our goal is to get out to as many people as possible.” Additionally, he says since they have been discussion the issue, they have seen a lot of community support.
This law extends only as far as the city limits. Chief McCollum adds that as it is only a city ordinance, it will only be enforced within College Station. As of right now, it is still legal to use a phone while driving in Bryan. Of course, that is subject to change.
“We heard about the [College Station] ordinance, and while it has not yet come before the Bryan City Council, we anticipate that like many local ordinances, the issue could also be brought forward sometime in the future,” says Bryan Deputy City Manager Joseph Dunn.
Bryan Communications and Marketing Supervisor Kala McCain says she is unaware of any existing laws similar to College Station’s. It will remain that way until the Bryan City Council initiates discussion on the issue.
The website for the city of College Station is cstx.gov. The ordinance itself can be found there under “Code of Ordinances.” The specific numbering for the ordinance is 2016-3797. Contact information for the city council and other representatives can also be found online.