It’s been just over a year since the City of Austin’s hands-free ordinance went into effect and, in 2015, Austin Police officers cited more than 5,000 drivers in Austin for using devices while behind the wheel.
While that number may seem steep to some, it’s just the start, as APD plans to diversify enforcement efforts and work to integrate hand-held enforcement efforts into the city’s Vision Zero plan.
Last year, 5,088 Austin drivers were cited for using a device while driving.
Lt. Robert Richman of APD’s Highway Enforcement Command isn’t surprised by the numbers and says 2016 isn’t very likely to bring a downswing of citations.
“I would hope that we would see a decrease in the number of citations only because, hopefully, it would inspire that behavioral change,” Richman says, comparing it to the enforcement of seatbelt violations. “When you get into a car nowadays, it’s really unheard of for people not to think about wearing their seatbelt. It took 50 years for people to change that.”
Hotspots for these citations aren’t exactly shocking – they include perennially congested roadways like U.S. Hwy 183, Guadalupe Street and I-35, where a fifth of all citations in 2015 were handed out.
Richman says the worst-affected area with device-using drivers is (again, not particularly shocking) Downtown Austin. Still, Richman says, the trend is troubling given the area's density and proximity to pedestrians. And, even though the traffic predictably comes to a daily lurching halt during rush hour, he says drivers shouldn’t rely on their screens for drive-time escapism.
“I think a lot of folks don’t realize – even though traffic is creeping along at three to five miles an hour – their vehicle is not stopped,” he says. “When you’re driving, when that car is in motion, we really need people to focus on the task at hand, especially downtown. When you’re turning through an intersection, the likelihood of hitting somebody with your car is huge.”
Like Richman said, the ubiquity of the behavior isn’t going anywhere overnight, or over the course of the next year. But, after a record-breaking number of roadway fatalities last year, the City of Austin is looking to bolster hands-free ordinance enforcement efforts by incorporating Richman and the Highway Enforcement Command’s tactics and crackdowns into the Vision Zero plan.
“We are going to be out there more, and we’re going to be focusing on the hands-free initiatives,” he says. “And, really, as it rolls out and becomes a part of Vision Zero…you’re going to see a lot more officers out there writing that citation.”
In one of last year’s most successful crackdowns, APD officers handed out 439 citations and about 100 warnings from Dec. 9 to Jan. 8 – all from officers on motorcycle.