Few local ordinances have such a daily effect on our lives as those which govern our driving behavior. Even as Denton builds more bike lanes and paths, and bus service changes to accommodate areas of more dense growth, many of us still drive on a daily basis. The Denton City Council first passed an ordinance governing cell phone use while driving in 2014. The ordinance was largely promoted and understood to be a ban on texting. Late in 2016, some sizeable amendments were passed to this ordinance which are scheduled to take effect on June 1st. That’s just in time for the lesser-known holidays of National Go Barefoot Day, New Year’s Resolution Recommitment Day, or Oscar The Grouch Day. Perhaps more applicable though, it also happens to be International Children's Day, and whether we react to these changes with “Finally!” or “Get your grubby government hands off my steering wheel!”, we can all hope this ordinance results in increased safety for children in Denton. Read on to find out how these changes will affect you!
While the 2014 ordinance was described as a texting ban, it actually prohibited any use of a phone by the driver other than dialing or conducting a phone conversation unless they were using it hands-free. However, it was also confusing and not effectively enforced. A hands-free device was defined as something which “allows use of the wireless device without use of either of the operator' s hands.” I don’t see very many contortionists walking around using their toes to press the answer/hangup button on their Bluetooth earpiece or steering wheel controls, but maybe I haven’t been frequenting the cool parts of town. In December of 2016, Denton City Council made several changes, both to make the ordinance more enforceable and more easily understood.
What is changing?
We get it, laws are confusing. Dodd-Frank is 848 pages. The Affordable Care Act is 905 pages. The Texas Constitution has 484 amendments. But Denton tries to keep local ordinances simple and readable. This ordinance is only three pages. Heck, that's short enough that you can go read it for yourself.
If you read the ordinance and also read several of the recent online descriptions, you are probably very confused. Some have claimed that it is a handheld device ban or that you can use your phone as a GPS or when stopped in traffic. The official city FAQ says you cannot use your phone at all when you are stopped in traffic. A Facebook post by the city announcing the changes resulted in over 350 comments, many of which were confused about the details. Let’s try to boil it down without changing the meaning of the legislation. Here are the activities allowed for a driver using a cell phone in different contexts.
Why were the changes necessary?
The Denton Police Department expressed that enforcement of the 2014 ordinance was lacking because it required deducing whether a driver was touching a phone to initiate a phone call or for some other purpose. Additionally, the council wanted to take steps to reduce the increasing occurrence of distracted driving beyond what the hobbled enforcement of the 2014 ordinance was yielding.
Enforcement is important because compliance is what reduces distracted driving, not simply the existence of such ordinances. As one study concluded:
“Well-enforced traffic laws have been a highly effective countermeasure for reducing risky driving behaviors and the associated crashes, deaths, and injuries. However, it is not clear at this point that laws limiting drivers’ cellphone use are having the same beneficial effects.”
What is clear is that when drivers pay more attention while driving, our roads are safer. It will be difficult to determine whether this ordinance achieves that goal, is unnecessary, or increases distraction due to evasive tactics. But we do all have the ability to make our roads safer. If you use your phone for driving directions, get a mount and set up your route before you start driving. Start using what hands free system you have access to if you need it – you may be surprised at how far Siri and Google Assistant have come with voice activation. And make yourself a great Spotify playlist so you aren't trying to switch songs while driving.
As technology develops toward the seemingly conflicted ends of increasing safety and attracting our attention, we will hope that common sense behavior, future city council ordinances, and safer driving technologies will work together to keep us safer than ever before. Whether you drive barefoot, are recommitting to that New Years resolution to not use your phone in your car, or are planning on being a grouch on Oscar the Grouch day out of disgust, it’s for the children.