To Battle Texting and Driving, Austin Police Turn to the Element of Surprise

May 11, 2016

Over the next few months, the Austin Police Department plans to step up enforcement of the city’s hands-free driving law, which prohibits talking or typing on a phone or other handheld electronic device while driving, without the use of a hands-free device.

To do this, police are using unexpected vehicles: Capital Metro buses.

At about 7 a.m. Tuesday, about a dozen Austin Police officers gathered in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart at Slaughter Lane and I-35.

A line of police cruisers, motorcycles and an empty bus stood at the ready. Four officers get into the bus to cruise up and down I-35 during morning rush hour to look for drivers violating the hands-free ordinance.

They radio to officers in cruisers and on motorcycles along the bus’s path to pull over the drivers they spot.

Sgt. Michael Barger, who’s overseeing the enforcement operation, says the higher vantage point makes it easier to spot drivers using their phones illegally. He says since the hands-free law went into place, he’s noticed drivers holding their phones lower to avoid detection, which makes it hard for officers in regular police vehicles.

A Cap Metro bus is used by APD during their operation on I-35. The officers on the bus coordinate with officers on the road to apprehend distracted driver.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News

“You’re trying to operate the vehicle and at the same time, you’re trying to look around and see if someone’s violating that ordinance,” said Sgt. Barger. “There’s nothing more distracting that trying to see what other people are doing in their car.”

Austin Police have written about 7,000 citations for violating the hands-free ordinance since it started being enforced on February 1, 2015. But Barger says, in his experience, its had little effect on the number of people engaged in that behavior. Studies have found drivers who are texting and driving perform as bad as those who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“You know, people are driving along, they got both hands on their phone like that guy in the Chevy Sonic right there,” Barger says. “How’s he steering? He’s not even watching traffic, he’s looking at his phone and he’s got both hands on it.”

After receiving information from APD aboard the Cap Metro bus, this officer pulled over a driver suspected of driving while distracted.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News.

Tuesday was the fourth time in the past few months that APD did one of these enforcement operations. The last one, on May 4, netted 71 citations for hands-free violations. Barger says they plan to do these operations weekly over the summer.

“I think by the conclusion of this operation, we’ll assess whether or not we think that people are compliant with the ordinance,” said Barger. “If we think they are, we’ll probably reduce the number of times that we do this. But we’ll continue to do it because we think its effective.”

On Tuesday, the operation resulted in 61 citations. Barger says the fines are around $200. First-time offenders are may be eligible to have their fine waived, if they can show proof that they bought a Bluetooth or other hands-free attachment for their phone or device after their citation.