By S. Barot
For The Fort Bend Star
In a 5-2 vote, the Sugar Land City Council acted to prohibit the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle.
This was the second and final reading of the ordinance, which is set to go into effect on March 20.
If in violation of the ordinance, drivers will be issued warnings for the first 90 days after it goes into effect. After the 90-day “education period,” drivers who violate the ordinance could face up to $500 in fines for the Class C misdemeanor.
The ordinance requires that portable electronic devices can only be used in hands-free mode or if a call is being made because there is an emergency. Devices can include mobile phones, personal digital assistants, MP3s, handheld music players, electronic reading devices, laptop computers, pagers, electronic game device or portable computing device.
There are some exceptions to using a handheld device. According to city documents, first responders while on duty, those making an emergency call to the police department, fire department or for emergency medical services, those driving with the device in hands-free or Bluetooth mode and a driver in a stopped vehicle may use their handheld devices.
Of the original 512 responses received from the original survey conducted by Sugar Land, 66.3 percent of respondents were in favor of an ordinance that would let the operator of a vehicle use a portable electronic device when only in a hands-free mode such as speakerphone or Bluetooth.
Opposing the ordinance were councilmembers Mary Joyce and Amy Mitchell – both were in opposition at the first reading on Feb.7. “I’ve had some concerns because if you’re driving from Missouri City to Sugar Land to Stafford, you don’t know where the city lines are and there could be different laws applied,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell was clear on her stance on the ordinance during the first reading and continued to give the same reasoning as to why she opposed. She is a proponent of the state legislating on the usage of mobile devices while driving.
“Why don’t we wait and let the state legislature rule on it because then there is one uniform statute throughout the state that we all know what it is no matter where you are,” she said.
Assistant Chief of Police Scott Schultz, who spearheaded this effort, said the department waited for the Texas Legislature to vote on prohibiting the usage of mobile devices in previous years but nothing has passed as of yet. The city went forward with its own resolution.
At present, 46 states have laws relating to distracted driving, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held mobile devices while driving. Over 60 cities in Texas have passed ordinances that regulate the use of electronic devices – including Missouri City, which has a no-texting ordinance.
State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has filed House Bill No. 62, which would issue a statewide violation for using a smartphone while driving. This is the fourth session in a row that Craddick has filed such a bill.
Sugar Land Councilmember Harish Jajoo added that he asked City Manager Allen Bogard for the last five years about an ordinance regarding handheld mobile device usage while driving. He said that council has been waiting for the state to come to a resolution regarding mobile devices since 2011.
“We had the same issue in 2013 and 2015,” Jajoo said. “I don’t expect anything different in 2017.”
Voting in favor of the ordinance were Mayor Joe Zimmerman and councilmembers Himesh Gandhi, Steve Porter, Harish Jajoo and Bridget Yeung.