How Far Should Cell Phone Bans Go?

The Zebra's home base of Austin is set to join a growing list of cities banning all non-hands-free cell phone use on January 1. But the move is kicking up some controversy.

distracted driving woman

The new law Austinites (and our neighbors down south in San Antonio) must abide by starting January 1, 2015, is pretty straightforward: The city ordinance prohibits the use of all electronic hand-held devices while operating a vehicle or bicycle. As long as you’re behind the wheel of a car and moving, you cannot answer your phone, send a text message, change a song, or check in with Google Maps or your GPS to see if you’re lost.

How Texas Handles Texting & Driving

With this new law, Austin joins 38 other Texas cities who have already banned texting while driving, though no statewide ban exists—yet. However, the next legislative section could bring about a statewide ban on texting and driving, as a state Rep plans to file House Bill 80, the Alex Brown Memorial Act. As the law stands now, only Texas bus drivers and young drivers are banned from using cell phones at the wheel all together—and the ban extends to school zones for all drivers, as well.


But Texas is among the minority—a full 31 states have now passed some kind of ban on texting while driving. They differ from state to state—in some places, texting while driving is a primary offense, while in others, it’s just a secondary offense, meaning you have to be pulled over for something else in order to be cited for it. And there’s no argument about the need to do something to stop distracted driving: The Texas Department of Transportation reported 95,267 traffic crashes in the state last year caused by distracted driving alone.

The Reaction

As we noticed news picking up in advance of the switch in our own hometown, however, we also noticed the conversation around the news. Facebook comments ranged from full support: “Yay!! I have been almost hit several times by people on cell phones. I’m glad to see them banned” to the less-than-convinced: “Next: no speaking to passengers, or glancing in their direction while behind the wheel. If the driver is seen taking hands from the wheel, a public flogging of not less than 15 lashes will commence….or $500.” And indeed, the city’s site does state that distracted driving includes all of the following:

• Texting

• Using a cell phone for any reason

• Eating and drinking

• Talking to passengers

• Grooming

• Reading, including maps

• Using a navigation system

• Watching a video

• Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 Player

We can completely understand how any of those behaviors could be potentially distracting—but surely there exists some kind of scale, right? Having a pleasant conversation with grandma is different than touching the pre-set radio button which is different than actually putting on makeup, right?

The Evidence

Because this is still a relatively new field, it’s understandable that results are mixed when it comes to studies on the efficacy of cell phone bans. Some studies say that they just don’t do anything to help curb accidents: This study out of Michigan, for example, found no correlation between the state’s implemented texting ban and a reduction in accidents. The study concluded, in fact, that “the introduction of the texting restriction was not associated with a reduction in crash rates or trends in severe crash types. On the contrary, small increases in the most severe crash types (fatal/disabling and nondisabling injury) and small decreases in the least severe crash types (possible injury/PDO) were observed.”

But other studies have found far more promising results—UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center found a striking 22 percent drop in traffic fatalities in the two years after California implemented its handheld cell phone ban in 2008. Injuries also dropped more than 50 percent in that same time period.

Currently just 12 states ban all drivers from using handheld cell phones behind the wheel, though as mentioned, many more have specific texting-and-driving bans. So what do you think—will bans like Austin’s help? Or do they somehow encroach on individual liberties?