State lawmakers could eliminate San Antonio’s ban on cell phones behind the wheel
SAN ANTONIO —
City officials are opposing Gov. Abbott’s call for an end to city regulations on cell phones in cars.
The governor last week asked state lawmakers to undo local ordinances when they meet for the special session so that only the statewide ban on texting while driving is enforced.
San Antonio’s hands-free ordinance, which allows virtually no cell phone use by drivers, could be pre-empted, or nullified. Dozens of other Texas cities also have tougher restrictions than the state law that takes effect Sept. 1, which bans only reading, writing or sending messages.
The statewide texting ban specifically allows GPS use and accessing phones to play music. Other activities like surfing the Internet, watching videos or making phone calls are not banned.
“The new state law only regulates texting while driving,” said Jeff Coyle, the city of San Antonio’s director of government and public affairs. “Our ordinance at the local level goes beyond that. It says you also can’t play a game on your phone while driving or watch a video or send an email or talk while driving. Ours is a hands-free ordinance. The state’s is just a texting ban, and that’s why we believe it’s important to have those regulations locally.”
The governor has called the various city ordinances restricting cell phone use a “patchwork quilt of regulations.” Drivers may not be aware what’s allowed from one city to the next.
Enforcement, however, could be trickier. Right now, a San Antonio police officer who sees a cell phone in a driver’s hand can stop the vehicle and issue a ticket. Under the state law, how will an officer know whether a driver is texting or doing something else?
Attorney Hector Gonzalez says it the state law makes it easier for drivers to fight tickets because only texting is illegal.
“(Officers are) going to have to have evidence one way or the other that you were actually sending a text or receiving a text while the vehicle was in motion,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a little bit harder to prove.”
Under the state law, drivers would certainly have more freedom to use their phones as they wish, with the exception of texting.
“If the state decides to pre-empt, nullify our local ordinances, we feel like it will make the streets more dangerous as opposed to safer,” Coyle said.
For now, San Antonio’s hands-free ordinance is still the law. That could change if state lawmakers act on the governor’s request during the special session that begins next month.