Texting while driving ban considered

Auburn may join the quickly growing list of cities across the nation that are banning texting while driving.

Brent Beard, councilman in Ward Four, said he is passionate about pushing the ban and said if passed, the ordinance would be in effect as soon as Jan. 1, 2011.

"If you're texting and driving, you're 23 times more likely to have an accident," Beard said. "That's an eye-opening number."

Because Auburn is a college town and also has a large population of high school students, Beard said the issue was even more important to address.

"Part of this is going to be an awareness thing as much as anything," Beard said. "You take a lot of things for granted at that age. We want to make them aware of how dangerous it actually is."

Beard said enforcement of the ordinance will be the hardest task.

"We don't want to burden our public safety staff with the problem of not being able to enforce what we put in the books," Beard said.

Councilwoman Sheila Eckman said she is concerned about the enforcement issue as well.

"Why do we want to put on the books an ordinance that's going to be difficult to police?" Eckman said. "Everybody with any sense knows not to text when they drive."

Eckman said she understands the concept, but feels that it wouldn't be effective and would be a waste of time for police.

"I get a lot of complaints about, 'We don't have enough police in the neighborhood' and so forth--you hate to think they're just driving around looking to see if somebody's texting," Eckman said. "To me, it's a little bit like drinking and driving: you're only going to really know that they were doing it if they had an accident and you look at the phone."

One option the Council may consider is making texting while driving a secondary violation, which means officers could only write a ticket for texting while driving if the driver violated another law, such as speeding, reckless driving or running a red light.

This is the case with the Huntsville Police Department, said Harry Hobbs, communications relations officer.

Hobbs said the Huntsville Police Department began enforcing the ordinance this week, as did several other Alabama cities, including Birmingham, Gadsden and Jacksonville.

So far, no tickets have been written for texting while driving, Hobbs said.

Like Beard, Hobbs said one of the main purposes of passing an ordinance like this is awareness.

"What we're hoping is that just by the fact that this is out here, it'll make people think twice," Hobbs said. "Maybe just having this ordinance on the books will make people think twice and say, 'I just don't need the headache. Let me just leave that out of the equation.'"

Hobbs said the Huntsville Police Department has been trained verbally in meetings and has also been given training brochures on the topic, but the department has not assigned any special units to patrol for drivers texting.

"We're not setting up a 'texting chokehold,'" Hobbs said.

The Auburn Police Department hasn't received word whether the violation will be a secondary or primary offense, said Paul Register, assistant chief of police.

"If that becomes a law, we will absolutely train all of our people--in first interpreting that policy and giving them advice and guidance in enforcing it, so that we can all be on the same page and consistent in our enforcement of that," Register said.

Register and Hobbs both said it was a judgment call for each officer whether they think the driver is texting or just looking at their phone to dial a number.

"We leave it to the officers to be able to visually observe what they would perceive to be texting," Register said. "Obviously, there's going to be questions as to whether someone's making a phone call or whether they're texting, and to me, you'd probably have to do some observation before you actually were able to contact somebody specific to that charge."

Register said if someone is caught texting while driving, the charges will probably not exceed the range of other traffic citations.

"I don't think it would be outside of the normal range of a ticket you would get for, say, for speeding or something along those lines," Register said.

Beard said he wasn't sure if the ordinance would decrease the number of people who text while they drive, but said he was hopeful.

"It would be nice for people to decide on their own that it's not safe to text and drive, but some people will continue to do it no matter how stiff of a penalty you make," Beard said.

Register said he was also unsure of the effect the ban would have.

"You'll have some people that will never stop doing that, unfortunately," Register said. "If it saves one person by somebody not texting, then it'll be worth it."

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