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Arlington moves ahead on texting-while-driving ban

08/16/2011 11:16 PM

09/09/2011 5:22 PM

ARLINGTON -- With very little public opposition, the Arlington City Council on Tuesday night approved moving forward with a new ordinance that would ban motorists from using cellphones for anything other than phone calls.

Only nine residents, six in support and three against, spoke on the proposed ordinance, which would make it a Class C misdemeanor for drivers to text, tweet or use other online applications on their cellphones.

If approved, violators would face a $200 fine after a 30-day public education campaign.

The council voted 5-3 on the first reading of the ordinance. A final vote will be next month.

Council members Mel LeBlanc, Jimmy Bennett and Sheri Capehart voted no. Council member Gene Patrick was absent but has supported the proposed ban.

Resident David Fusco spoke in favor of a ban, saying that the city already prohibits cellphone use in school zones to help protect children but that adults are no less expendable. All the distractions from holding a phone or e-mail conversation can easily divert a driver's attention from the road, putting him and others at risk, he said.

"No matter how important the conversation or the text, it is not more important than pushing two or more tons of vehicle down the road," said Fusco, encouraging motorists to pull over if they need to use their phones.

But Roger Guess opposed the ordinance, calling it government intrusion.

"You all seem to be getting more and more involved in my personal business," said Guess, predicting that more wrecks would result from motorists trying to hide that they are texting while driving.

"I wish you all would take care of basic services and leave people like me alone."

LeBlanc questioned whether officers would be able to determine whether a motorist was dialing his or her cellphone or scrolling through contacts to find a phone number -- which would be legal -- or sending a text or e-mail.

"The way we're doing it, I think it puts a huge burden on the individual police officer," LeBlanc said.

Assistant Police Chief Will Johnson said officers would stop motorists only if they had probable cause that a violation had occurred.

"If your thumbs are flying and the officer can look inside the vehicle, that is a behavior we can seek to change through this ordinance," Johnson said. "There will be some incidents that won't be that obvious. Officers won't take action for those cases."

Like laws that target unsafe lane changes and tailgating, Johnson said the texting ban will help police address dangerous driving behaviors.

"This will become another tool that can be used to address distracted driving and reduce vehicle crashes," Johnson said.

Between May 2010 and May 2011, 824 of the 6,094 wrecks reported in Arlington were caused by distracted drivers, according to a city report. Four percent of the distraction-linked wrecks involved cellphones.

"These types of needless wrecks can tie up police and fire personnel for hours," Councilman Robert Rivera said.

"We as a community have to send out officers and firefighters and put them in harm's way to respond to preventable accidents."

The rules would not apply to public safety personnel, many of whom use laptop computers in their vehicles.

Arlington already bans the use of handheld cellphones in active school zones.

San Antonio and Austin also ban texting while driving.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

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