Austin issues more than 5,000 tickets to 'hands-free' violators

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- After nearly a year of 'hands-free' driving in Austin, the Austin Police Department has issued more than 5,000 citations to drivers, said to be violating the law.

Records from Austin Municipal Court show from Feb. 1, 2015 to Dec. 23, 2015, 5,043 tickets were issued. The fines, classified as Class C misdemeanors, can be up to $500. The law requires drivers to use a hands-free system-such as Bluetooth, headphones, or an affixed GPS system-while driving a car or riding a bike.

The law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, but during the first month the city gave drivers a break with a month-long grace period.

Allison Mack co-founded Austin Moms Blog in 2011, and stays busy keeping up with the booming business.

"We've got 25 writers on our team and we're pushing out daily content, bringing moms together in the way of events, so it's definitely a full-time gig," Mack explained. "As a mom of two little ones and a third one on the way, quiet time is a hot commodity. And a lot of times I'm doing work in the car, you know, put a movie on for the kids, it's when I take a lot of calls because it's when I'm able to get the kids to be quiet."

But the gig wouldn't be possible without the transition to hands-free gadgets. Her birthday gift was to focus on staying hands-free while driving.

"It definitely impacted my day-to-day life," Mack said of the change in law. "It's a constant struggle and balance of making sure I'm being safe and being a good mom and being a good defensive driver as well, but then at the same time wanting to get things done in the right here and right now."

GOING IN-DEPTH // Citation Break-down
  • Guilty: 2,638
  • Dismissed - Compliance: 619
  • Dismissed - Plea Bargain: 72
  • Dismissed: 57
  • Other: 188
  • Pending: 1,538
Source: COA Municipal Court

Over at TXR Custom Audio & Accessories, owner Greg Hart saw the impact on his business when the ordinance first went into effect.

"Every call was, 'I don't want to get the ticket, I don't want to get the ticket, I don't want to get the ticket,'" Hart recalled. "But I had some people come in, 'Hey, I got the warning."

In the months leading up to and after the Jan. 1change, Hart saw hands-free devices flying off the shelves.

"It's cheaper to go that route than to pay the ticket," Hart said.

But for Hart, it's about more than just business. "I've got two kids now, so I think you need to not be texting. And I yell at people when I'm driving and I'm like 'get off your phone.' Pay attention to the traffic," Hart said.

Out of the 5,043 citations issued, approximately 750 or so tickets were dismissed--most involved some sort of deal with the judge, which varies from "good behavior agreements" to driver safety courses.

Austin is not the only city with a hands-free ordinance. Every city along I-35 from Austin to San Antonio will have some sort of hands-free ordinance in place by the end of next year. The law in San Marcos will take effect in February with enforcement beginning in March.

While cities are implementing bans, don't expect a statewide ban anytime soon. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a bill to ban texting while driving, but there weren't enough votes to bring it up in the Texas Senate, essentially killing the measure. If lawmakers do get the votes for a ban in the next legislative session, the earliest it could take effect would likely be September 2017.

A study released in April 2013 by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, estimated that in 2010, 3,092 people were killed, 9 percent of all deadly crashes, and 416,000 people were hurt, 18 percent of all injury crashes, in crashes involving distracted drivers.

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