New law would make it illegal to use hand-held devices behind the wheel
By S. Barot
For the Fort Bend Star
Opposing the ordinance in a vote held Feb. 7 were councilmembers Mary Joyce and Amy Mitchell.
Joyce said that while the ordinance may address some distractions, the majority of distractions will not be addressed. She added that some of the newer technology can be even more distracting and suggested that local government should push more at the state-level.
“I have very mixed feelings,” Joyce said. “I hope that this is beneficial. And I think the education is going to be critically important.”
Mitchell said she doesn’t believe this is a local issue; it is a state-level issue. She also said she would rather have one uniform piece of legislation that applies to everyone in the state and that local government should engage state-level representatives to talk about this issue.
Under the ordinance, drivers who need to use a mobile or electronic device must have it hands-free or in Bluetooth mode so the operator does not have to handle the device to use it.
Assistant Chief of Police Scott Schultz said the use of a mobile or electronic device – which includes cellular telephone, laptops, MP3 players, and gaming devices, among other things, will not be permitted for use while operating a motor vehicle.
“The operator can touch buttons on the device but cannot hold it in their hand,” Schultz said.
The Texas Department of Transportation reports that one out of every five crashes involves a distracted driver. There is no statewide ordinance as of yet. Over 60 cities in Texas have passed ordinances that regulate the use of electronic devices – including Missouri City, which has a no texting ordinance.
Schultz admitted there are different facets to distracted driving, including eating, reading and adjusting features in the car like air conditioning. He added that the Sugar Land Police Department (SLPD) cannot regulate all of those behaviors but electronic device usage is something they can regulate.
City council will have another reading of the ordinance on Feb. 21 and if approved at the time, Schultz says he anticipates a March 20 inception date. Council must approve the second reading before it goes into effect and Schultz anticipates the council approving the ordinance.
SLPD will also have a 90-day “education period.” If a driver is pulled over by a law enforcement officer for violating the new ordinance within the first 90 days, they will be given a warning and educated on the new law.
After that, violation of the ordinance is a class C misdemeanor – and the fine is set to be up to $500. Schultz told council that the violator will have to see a judge and they will stipulate the fine – whether it is probation or a monetary fine.
The ordinance has been in the pipeline for quite some time. The city did an extensive community outreach exercises for six months. An online town hall meeting was open to the public so they could voice their opinions on the subject.
Councilmember Harish Jajoo said that he brought the subject of distracted driving to City Manager Allen Bogard a few years ago. He added that the city went through a long process vetting the ordinance with the residents of Sugar Land.
Three options were given to the public. First was an ordinance stating that it is unlawful to use a handheld mobile device for texting or social media while driving, but can be used to make a phone call. Second was an ordinance stating that it is unlawful to use a mobile handheld device that is not in the hands-free mode, unless the vehicle is pulled off the road and not in motion or for making an emergency call. The third was using neither of the two aforementioned options.
Schultz said the majority of the citizens who responded wanted the hands-free ordinance. He added he received many positive reactions throughout the community with the ordinance.
“We are not trying to play a gotcha game here,” he said. We are trying to make the motoring public safe for everybody. We really want to work with the community to change the driving habits of individuals.”