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Despite Hands-Free Laws, Fatal Crashes Are Up in Austin

Tamir Khalifa/Texas Tribune

So far this year, 82 people have died in Austin as a result of more than 70 crashes on the city’s roads. At the same time, this is the first year of the city’s hands-free ordinance, a law intended to make driving safer.

So how many of this year’s deaths have been because someone answered a call or responded to a text?

The Austin Police Department says they just can’t know. So even though there's been a rise in traffic fatalities this year, there's no way to measure how the hands-free ordinance has affected road safety in Austin.

You can hit “send” on a text message in maybe a millisecond, and a deadly car crash “happens in a microsecond,” says Sergeant Jeff Slater with APD. “So, in order for us to link a phone to the actual crash, we’d have to know a couple of things. One: the exact moment the crash took place. And I don’t know of any technology we have at this time that would enable us to get that information.”

Slater runs Austin police’s vehicular homicide unit. He says the department has never subpoenaed phone records to prove a driver was using his or her phone at the time of a crash. The burden of proof is too high. First, you have to match the timing precisely. You also have to prove that it was the driver texting — not a passenger, if there was one.

So what evidence can APD obtain to prove a phone was the cause of a crash?  Turns out, they can only rely on a driver’s honesty.

“I was texting, and I didn’t see the car, something like that.”

Other law enforcement departments around the country have looked at phone records. Recently, Caitlyn Jenner turned over her phone records to Malibu police to prove she was not using her phone right before a deadly crash earlier this year. Meanwhile, APD says they’ll keep monitoring behavior that can be linked definitively to specific accidents – speeding and drunk driving. 

Below is an interactive map created by traffic safety advocate Nic Moe that plots all of Austin's roadway deaths in 2015 through September. 

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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