Cell Phone Ordinance Law in Austin, Texas
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Since the City of Austin launched their Hands Free Cell Phone Ordinance effective on January 1, 2015 there have been many drivers confused about its regulation and provisions. This initiative is aimed to stop “distracted driving” which is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents. Below Austin Defense Attorney, Jason Trumpler, explains what this hands free cell phone law means for Travis County drivers.
The Ordinance No. 20140828-041
states that a driver cannot use any electronic devices while driving a motor vehicle. Electronic devices include anything that is handheld or requires the use of hands while driving, not limited to only mobile phones but PDA’s, MP3 players, laptops, tablets, GPS or navigation systems, gaming systems and portable computing devices.
The Ordinance explicitly names these devices and if drivers are caught using them while driving they can be ticketed for violating the ordinance.
But what does “use” mean? The ordinance describes “hands free” as the use of Bluetooth or headphones, if the driver’s hand is touching the device this is not considered “hands-free”. Mounting systems that hold the phone or device but still require the driver to touch it do not count as “hands-free”. The police will enforce the use of the cell phone or GPS device mounted onto the dashboard if to operate it the driver touches the device while driving.
The only way to be completely “hands free” is to use a speaker or Bluetooth system that allows the driver to instruct the phone or device via voice commands without the use of their hands. Newer vehicles come equipped with Bluetooth capabilities in the stereo system, older vehicles may need to have a system installed, use a Bluetooth headset or replace their stereo/console to accommodate the new ordinance. GPS systems are also targeted by the ordinance and should be programmed before driving or affixed into the vehicles center console.
The only other way to be safely hands-free is to use headphones with a device or phone that allows the user to speak commands via the headphone microphone. If the user is using headphones but still holding the device, they can be cited for not following the ordinance. The headphone provision is mainly for bicyclists who are also not allowed to use their phone while moving but may not have a hands free Bluetooth system for their bike. The police will issue a ticket for any driver holding, touching or using their cell phone or device while operating a moving motor vehicle or bicycle.
Recently, it has been observed that Austin police are becoming increasingly strategic in their methods of catching drivers violating the ordinance. APD started using the bus systems to catch drivers, placing officers on board the bus to spot drivers using their cell phones through bus windows. Once the police find a driver on their phone, they radio ahead to patrol cars stationed on the bus route with information on the driver and their vehicle. The stationed patrol car then goes ahead and pulls the driver over issuing them a ticket.
In addition to the methods used by police in buses and patrol cars, they are also using upgraded cameras to capture drivers on their cell phones. Don’t be surprised if the ticket they send in the mail has a picture of you driving and looking down at your cell phone. The upgraded cameras can be used from very far distances to capture drivers who may not even see the camera or police using it.
In some counties police are also posing as homeless citizens, standing on the side of the road with signs that state they are from the police department looking for cell phone users. Drivers don’t read the signs or recognize police in civilian clothing and continue to use their electronic devices. These “homeless police” are targeting drivers not paying attention at traffic lights because they are using their cell phones. In Austin, it is legal to use a cell phone while your vehicle is stopped at a light but the phone must be put down when driving. This is when police are able to ticket drivers for not stopping their use of hand-held devices as the light changes and their vehicle begins to move.
Cell phone use (calling and texting) is also restricted in school zones (with automatic higher fine rates) throughout the entire state of Texas. Teenage drivers in Austin that are under 18 years of age are prohibited from using any communication device even if it is wireless.
So when can I use my phone? The provisions in the Austin ordinance state that drivers can use their phone when the vehicle is completely stopped at a traffic light or in standstill traffic. Drivers can also use their phone/devices while legally parked or on private property (home driveways and parking lots). There is a provision that also allows drivers to make emergency calls and correspond with 9-1-1 or 3-1-1 to report a crime or accident. Police still warn that in these situations it is better for the driver to find a safe place to pull over and make their emergency call.
The consequences for violating the ordinance include a Class C Misdemeanor Ticket, with fines ranging from $100 for first offenses and up to $500 for additional convictions. For offenders, our firm can represent your case and resolve it through the Prosecutor’s office with a deferral agreement and/or ticket dismissal. A reduction in fines and discounted court fees may be offered if this is your first offense upon proof of purchase of a hands free system that allows the driver to use the device without touching it. The minimum cost for a system to qualify for a fine reduction must be equal to or greater than $50.00 with the purchase dated after the date of the issued citation. Even if you do qualify for these reduction/discount programs, you may still be responsible for some court costs. You can check out COA ordinance rules here
Surrounding Austin cities that are also enforcing cell phone ordinances include: Bee Caves, Lakeway, Buda, Kyle, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Westlake Hills and Wimberly. Some of the ordinances in these cities vary but most include a hands-free law similar to Austin’s. If you find yourself one of the thousands of drivers who are cited with a ticket, we can help! Our Austin criminal defense firm represents clients in these cities and surrounding counties to help defer cell phone tickets or have cases dismissed.