APD begins initiative to combat distracted driving

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin Police Department began amping up their approach to combating distracted driving in the Austin area last month. 

As part of a new initiative, APD Sgt. Michael Barger with the department’s Highway Enforcement Unit brings a team comprised of five to six bicycle officers and three motorcycle officers to the downtown area from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. one day per week. Officers focus on ticketing drivers who are not complying with Austin’s hands-free ordinance, which went into effect in 2015 and prohibits the use of electronic devices while driving. The first initiative took place Feb. 10 and has since occurred on a weekly basis.  

“If they’re holding (their phone) down in their lap, an officer in a patrol car can’t see that,” Barger said. “But my guys on bicycles, on motorcycles, they can look right down into your car.”

While the initiative focuses on distracted driving, officers also give out citations for other violations. During their first initiative, APD issued a total of 162 citations and warnings, 99 of which were hands-free violations. On average, the team  has issued 200 total citations and 110 hands-free citations per initiative, Barger said. 

The initiative is the second part of a larger project to combat distracted driving. Since early 2016, highway patrol officers have utilized Capital Metro to combat hands-free violators on IH-35. Once per month, officers board city buses, spot drivers using electronic devices and dispatch motor units to give the violator a citation. APD issued 40 hands-free citations in about three hours Feb. 4, using this method, according to KEYE TV. 

“There are (hands-free) ways that you can use your cell phone,” Barger said. “So when people tell us ‘Oh, I was just checking my voicemail,’ or checking this, or checking that — we’re not giving them a break on that.”

First-time offenders face a fine of $220, while second time offenders face fines upward of $300, Barger said. First-time offenders can eliminate the citation from their driving record by purchasing a Bluetooth device and bringing its receipt to the Municipal Court when they pay their fine. 

Undeclared sophomore Catherine Meyer was driving with her parents downtown during Tuesday’s initiative when they were pulled over by a bicycle cop. Meyer said drivers shouldn’t take the new initiative lightly.

“It’s real, it’s happening,” Meyer said. “It’s easier for people to pick up their phones and look at it than to have to go another step and (buy) Bluetooth … but just try to avoid it.”

Texas is currently one of four states with no statewide ban against texting while driving. The Texas Legislature has previously rejected bills that would have made cellphone use while driving a misdemeanor, but the issue has resurfaced this legislative session. 

“We cannot legislate stupidity,” state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, told KXAN. “Everyone knows it’s unsafe to do it.” 

While APD has focused the initiative on the downtown area, Barger said his team has plans to soon move their operation to other areas of the city, including into West Campus. The weekly initiatives will continue throughout Austin until APD feels they have made a significant impact, Barger said.

“Our goal is to have zero violations,” Barger said. “If we continue to write tickets, we will continue to do the operation.”