Jan. 1, a City of Austin ordinance declared Austin hands free, prohibiting the use of hand-held devices while driving or biking. After a 30-day grace period which ended Sunday, Austin Police Department can now issue citations for violations of the hands-free ordinance.
“Luckily, we’re a safe city, but we want to be safer in traffic-related incidents,” Austin Police Department Commander Art Fortune said.
APD reported 10 fatal traffic-related accidents in the month of January, an increase from two fatalities last January. Fortune said mobile phone use caused two of the 10 traffic accidents so far this year.
The police department announced a safety initiative for the month of February, which directs officers to focus on violations of the hands-free ordinance. People who violate the ordinance can receive up to a $500 fine.
Campus police will still not give citations to violators on campus, UTPD officer William Pieper said.
“Because it’s a city ordinance, and the University of Texas is state property, the city ordinance doesn’t apply,” Piper said. “Since it is within the city limits of Austin, we could stop people, but I don’t venture we’d be issuing citations on campus. Our hope is that students understand the spirit behind that law.”
Beyond Campus, people should expect citations now that the grace period is over, Fortune said. This does not mean every violator will receive a $500 fine, however.
“Officers can still use discretion and can still write a warning,” Fortune said. “As officers, we understand this is a new law, and we want voluntary compliance.”
APD also plans to collect data on the number of people who violate the ordinance and will adjust the distribution of their officers if they notice more violations in a particular area, according to Fortune
“Data drives intelligent policing now,” Fortune said. “You look at the data and formulate strategies on where to put your resources.”
Accounting junior Lauren Saunders said she understands the reason the law is in place but thinks the city should not have banned all mobile-device use.
“I would most likely keep it as a ‘no-texting’ ordinance,” Saunders said. “I do understand that holding a phone while driving can be distracting. My biggest problem with the ordinance is the fact that it prevents drivers from holding their phone to use it as a GPS.”
Paul Khermouch, computer science and electrical engineering junior, is a member of the Longhorn Bike Coalition, an organization dedicated to educating students about bike safety. Khermouch said the ordinance may not be enough to prevent traffic accidents.
“Even if you’re using a hands-free phone while driving or biking, it is definitely distracting you and making you less aware of what’s happening around the road around you,” Khermouch said. “This is going to help improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians and drivers, but it’s not the final step in achieving a safer environment.”