Jurisdiction Measuring: Denton City Council Will Vote on Banning Handheld Device Use in Vehicles

Michael GrossmanOctober 21, 2016 7 minutes

Thanks in large part to increased safety measures in modern vehicles, crash fatalities saw a gradual decline for most of the 2000's. Unfortunately, that positive streak was broken by the increased prevalence and functionality of smartphones, which have become harder and harder to resist for the majority of the populace. We fiddle with them in bed, stare at them during dinner, and those most helplessly addicted can sometimes be spotted in traffic, staring down into their laps instead of watching the road.

It worries me to think that people are comfortable with the idea of placing themselves, other drivers, and pedestrians at risk by making use of their smartphones on the road. Only a genuine narcissist would believe it's fine to browse Instagram at 60+ miles per hour.

Of course, Texas lawmakers aren't quite as emphatic as I am that phone use behind the wheel is an invitation to disaster. Multiple attempts have been made to issue statewide bans of all texting and driving (with another effort due in 2017 at the next session), but in each instance they have been struck down. The central tenet of the opposition seems to be the protection of drivers' First Amendment right to free speech, which causes reflexive pearl-clutching whenever a threat to it is perceived.

Because the state can't get any traction on these laws, it has for the most part fallen to individual cities to handle such infractions on their own. Over 60 Texas cities have ordinances prohibiting all instances of texting and driving, including the City of Denton. Now it actually seeks to take a further step; the City Council will vote November 1st on a bill that restricts drivers to hands-free communications while driving. That would mean no more in-hand activities whatsoever with a phone.

The State Doesn't Have Much to Say About Distracted Driving.

The Texas Transportation Code is pretty light on regulations for distracted driving. For phones in particular, the only things the TTC specifically addresses are texting by commercial drivers, minors under the age of 18, and anyone in a school zone. Those are perfectly reasonable, of course, and lives are better protected because of them, but they fall short of the measures necessary to really safeguard the public. Attempts have been made in the last three legislative sessions to ban handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle, but in each instance the bill failed to fly. It actually was passed in 2011, but was vetoed by then-governor Rick Perry. As things stand, the Lone Star State is one of only four states without a collective "texting while driving" ban.

Beyond those few laws, Texas is functionally the Wild West for individual adult motorists with the steering wheel in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Like many other cities, Denton's goal is to lessen the number of distractions available to drivers in city limits. If the ordinance were to pass, motorists would need a hands-free mount and voice operation/speakerphone to interact with things like map programs or music players.

Denton City Council, Much Like the State, is Divided on the Issue.

Several members of Denton's City Council object to further regulating people's cell phone use. Many regard such regulations as an intrusion on a citizen's inalienable right to express him- or herself, protected by the Bill of Rights. This is a sentiment echoed in virtually every instance where someone is asked not to say or do something, for whatever reason. America is perpetually on guard against censorship or impinged freedom. I would contend, however, that the safety of those around you outweighs the urgency of your desire to send a few emojis to your buddies.

Emoji car crash story
This more or less tells the story of how that ends up.

It's important to note that driving is a privilege, not a right. That may sound like hair-splitting, but it's far from it--governments have a great deal more latitude in regulating activities not specifically protected by the Constitution. No amendment has yet been drafted to protect anyone's right to be a negligent and dangerous jackass behind the wheel of a two-ton projectile, so governments quite naturally seek to protect the bulk of the public against such displays of "patriotism." More than that, the roads and highways that cars operate on are public domain, so no one is entitled to individual protections that supersede general public welfare. In other words, your right to ignore the road is not more important than other drivers' rights to remain un-crashed into.

Are we as a society upset at the idea that people can't drive drunk? Do we cheer when we see a Porsche weave in and out of traffic at 95 miles per hour? Do we give enthusiastic coughing thumbs-up to the old clunker pickup truck belching greasy black exhaust clouds?

Nope. Drunk driving's illegal. Speeding is illegal. Emissions standards help to keep our air clean. Laws exist that prohibit these and other dangerous behaviors, and drivers collectively understand that the laws were enacted not to suppress freedom, but to protect life and safety. It's also very much against the law to hurt others while in your vehicle, the chances of which are drastically increased by drunk or distracted driving. Most would agree that preventing such injuries would better serve everyone than punishing them ex post facto. In the end, if someone's hurt the stakes are substantially raised for the offender, from a simple fine up to a felony indictment and possible life imprisonment. Whatever you may feel about your right to express yourself behind the wheel, I don't anticipate a lot of flak for thinking we'd all prefer to avoid prison.

In short, freedom of speech isn't really under siege here. Nobody is telling drivers not to say things; the proposed laws would just be asking them to wait to say them until they're out of the car.

Enforcing Such a Law Could be Difficult.

This idea isn't without problems, of course. For instance, enforcement of such a law would be extremely difficult. Probable cause is required for a traffic stop, which would suggest that Denton police would need to actually see a motorist glancing down at his or her lap while driving. Expecting an officer to accurately assess a driver's head angle and line of sight in the split second they have before a car passes is asking a great deal. At night, things might get slightly easier because of a phone's glowing screen, but even then it might simply be the lights of their dashboard stereo.

Even if the police catch someone, they will have a tricky time with proving the transgression. By the time the citizen is pulled over, that phone can be in a pocket or purse, and due process says that the law regards anyone accused of a crime as innocent until they are proven guilty. anyone who contests the ticket could have a very good chance of getting out of it. That's time and money wasted by the court system, all in the name of collecting something like a $200 fine. Some might argue that "the juice is not worth the squeeze," but the important element here is prevention, not punishment. By making the act illegal, the hope would be that law-abiding citizens would prefer not to transgress, and would therefore cease the behavior. Increasing public safety and reducing distracted-driving collision rates are the real goals of such an initiative.

Having said that, however, informal polls taken in Denton indicate people don't even realize that texting and driving is already illegal. Many are spotted every day texting at stop lights and on city streets, ignoring the 60+ posted signs advising residents and passers-through that the act is prohibited. Passing ordinances to outlaw handheld use might not create a major dent in the prevalence of this problem, but other cities, including Argyle and Little Elm, have passed similar laws anyway.

Sometimes Grassroots Change Affects the Course of Events.

Denton has reared its mighty, jazz-filled head before when it comes to outlawing practices inside its city limits. You may recall that in late 2014 the city banned hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." After collecting sufficient signatures from its citizens, the city approved ordinances that shut down several fracking wells within the city's borders.

The companies that own those wells immediately filed suit in Austin, claiming that the ban was outside Denton's jurisdiction and was an abuse of its municipal powers. State legislators either agreed immediately or were convinced in short order; in May of 2015, they passed a new bill that prohibits any Texas city from outlawing fracking, including repealing Denton's standing ban. The city tried to take matters into its own hands because there was no specific state law that said it couldn't with that issue in mind. Texas' legislative response didn't exactly do Denton residents any favors, but at least it made the state's official position clear and avoided further clashes.

Sometimes, though, the state might benefit more from cooperating with the will of its citizens. Denton was an isolated incident with relation to fracking, but in terms of outlawing texting, a bloc of 60+ like-minded cities hardly qualifies as a few radical yahoos. I respect that Texans are well-known to be stubborn, but as our elected officials are meant to reflect the collective opinion of their constituents, perhaps in 2017 they'll see their way clear to do precisely that. Besides, there's no deep-pocketed lobby, no "Big Distraction," bitterly opposed to this idea. Nobody really benefits from car crashes.

Some folks might look at Denton's proposed actions and think that its 2014 all over again. What they miss is that absent a state law prohibiting them from acting, or a provision in the Texas Constitution that clearly states that this is an area where they have no power, local municipalities are free to pass what laws they please. Inaction by the Texas Legislature leaves the door open. In fact, local action, much like in the Denton fracking ban could be what spurs the state to come up with a uniform cell phone policy.

This Is a Valuable Idea That is Struggling for Footing.

It is a prudent measure to outlaw texting and driving, and I applaud all 67 cities that have passed regulations to this effect. It is difficult for me to buy that critical exchanges are taking place through this medium, and if it's not vital, it can wait. I believe the Texan government is right to continue pursuing this as a statewide mandate, and I wish the bill's proponents better luck in the 2017 legislative session. Maybe if they can get a foot in the door with that bill, they can further address other kinds of handheld device use down the road.

State Senator Kirk Watson doesn't appear optimistic about the legislation's chances; in a recent interview with Everything Lubbock, he was quoted as saying: "I would not bet that the law passes (in 2017). In fact, if required to make a bet of real money I would bet the law doesn't pass."

I understand the pushback in the sense that our ability to do something we enjoy would be limited by the bill's passing, but the consequences of that action are severe. No matter how "good" a driver I think I am, my judgment and reaction time are seriously compromised--worse than being drunk--when I take my eyes off the road to type some inane message on my phone. Just because it's physically possible for me to do a thing doesn't mean it's logical or safe, and it certainly doesn't imply I have permission to put others at risk.

Some studies suggest that due to its variety of applications and its possibility of positive feedback via social media, smartphone use is addictive. We receive small releases of serotonin and dopamine on seeing new notifications, and our brains really like those chemicals. In idle moments (and even in busy ones), many of us find our hands reaching for our devices to check Facebook or send a text. That's a hard habit to break no matter what we're doing, but break it we must, and maybe rendering it illegal in the car would be a step toward accomplishing that.