ARLINGTON -- Arlington is considering becoming the first major city in North Texas to adopt tougher restrictions on cellphone use by drivers, going far beyond a state law prohibiting their use in school zones.
On Tuesday, city leaders discussed following the lead of Austin and San Antonio, which have banned texting, e-mailing and playing games while driving. Another option is to go further, like El Paso, and ban even talking on a cellphone unless it is hands-free.
Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Weisskopf provided members of the Municipal Policy Committee with examples of ordinances adopted by other large cities in Texas. The full City Council will consider the issue at a future meeting.
The discussion comes as state lawmakers prepare to tackle the issue, too. About 10 bills addressing cellphone use by drivers have been filed, most of which would prohibit reading, writing or sending text-based communications. At least one bill would prohibit calls unless a hands-free device is used.
Councilman Robert Rivera, who raised the issue last year, said he wants the city to ban texting, even though the Legislature could make such a ban state law a few months later. "There's no reason to wait," he said. "This is something that's in the best interest of everybody."
Councilman Robert Shepard had a different take. "For us to do it now would be a waste of time on our part," he said. "Distracted driving is a problem, and everybody is worried about it. But it doesn't make sense for us to do something that could be overtaken by the state."
Under state law, a "wireless communication device" is one that uses a commercial mobile service. A "hands-free device" means speakerphone capability or equipment that allows use of the device without the driver's hands.
In 2009, the Legislature passed two bills on cellphone use. One outlaws the use of hand-held devices in school crossing zones, unless a call is an emergency. The other prohibits drivers younger than 18 with a restricted license from using wireless devices in the first year of driving.
While the bills took effect in September 2009, Arlington didn't start enforcement until June.
Deputy Chief Lauretta Hill told the council that between June 1 and Jan. 31, 327 citations were issued for cellphone violations. Of those, she said, only 27 were to minors.
In May, the Arlington school district took a scared-straight approach in a campaign against texting while driving, requiring students of all nine high schools to watch a video of a gruesome staged wreck.
After seeing the localized three-minute version of a widely viewed YouTube video, students were asked to sign pledges to avoid texting until they are off the road.
In El Paso, the use of hand-held devices for talking, texting or other purposes is prohibited throughout the city. Use of hands-free devices and speakerphones is permitted. Police issued 4,356 citations for cellphone violations between April 1, when the city began enforcing its law, and Dec. 17. Cellphones were a factor in at least two of the city's 2010 fatalities, El Paso police spokesman Darrel Petry said.
"We had one fatality where the cellphone was in the driver's hand," Petry said.
Police can't determine whether the ban is making El Paso streets safer. So far in 2011, 12 people have been killed on El Paso roads, Petry said, putting the city on pace to surpass last year's total fatalities. But those fatalities include many factors beyond cellphone use.
Staff writer Gordon Dickson contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Patrick M. Walker,