Hold that call
You might want to stop that.
The Port Aransas City Council is set today, Thursday, Sept. 17, to discuss the possibility of enforcing a new state law that bars motorists from using cell phones in a non-hands-free manner in school zones. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in council chambers at city hall.
To enforce the ban, cities must erect signs in school zones warning motorists about the law. But cities have the option of not enforcing the ban. They can do that simply by not putting up signs.
Councilman Keith McMullin, who put the matter on the council’s agenda, said he favors putting up the signs and enforcing the law. Studies in other parts of the country have shown that cell phone use is a distraction that threatens traffic safety, McMullin said.
Is it a problem in Port Aransas?
“I don’t know, but if it impairs people when they do it in Topeka, it impairs them when they do it here,” McMullin said.
Asked if he views cell phone use as a danger, Port Aransas Police Chief Scott Burroughs said, “I can tell you from personal experience that distractions in general in a vehicle, whether it’s a cell phone or fiddling with a radio, often contributes to accidents. But, whether a cell phone is any more dangerous than eating a hamburger or changing a CD in your radio, I think the jury is still out on that.”
McMullin said he’s confident the council will move forward with getting the signs put up.
Dr. Sharon Doughty, superintendent of Port Aransas schools, has spoken about the new law to the Port Aransas Independent School District Board of Trustees.
“We were all in agreement that we would like to see the city assist with this new law by reminding individuals traveling around our schools that this law does exist by putting up signs in our school zones,” Doughty said.
“We also have many people who visit our city who may not come from areas in which this school-zone cell phone ban exists,” Doughty said. “Putting up signs would certainly be a first step toward warning our visitors of this law, as well as most certainly protecting our students.”
A motorist who violates the law could get a ticket and be fined up to $500.
The question of whether to enforce the law “sounds easy and maybe automatic,” Kovacs said.
“But when the first ticket goes out because someone forgets and answers the phone, it’s going to be big, and we want to make sure everyone knows about it, and council considers whether those kinds of fines should be given,” Kovacs said.
City staff has issued no recommendations on whether the council should vote to enforce.
House Bill 55 makes it illegal to use a wireless communication device in a school zone unless the vehicle is stopped or a hands-free device is used.
“It is a defense to prosecution if the operator was making an emergency call,” stated a news release issued in August by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The cell phone measure is one of a number of bills that took effect as law beginning on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
Burroughs said his department will allow for a short grace period if the council votes to put up the signs. The grace period would last less than a month, and it would give people a chance to become informed about the new law through news reports and word of mouth, Burroughs said.
Police would not go out especially to look for cell phone violations, the chief said.
“We routinely work the school zones anyway (for speeding and other safety violations), and it would just be another violation the officers could be looking for while working around the school zones,” Burroughs said.