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City mulls banning drivers from using cell phones

September 6, 2018

HARLINGEN — Driving and cell phones don’t mix?

Last night, city commissioners reviewed a proposed ordinance that would ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones within city limits.

But many questions surround the proposal, Mayor Chris Boswell told commissioners.

The proposed ordinance comes from Police Chief Jeffry Adickes nearly a year after local architect Meg Jorn was killed in one-car crash linked to cell phone use.

The proposal would not ban drivers from using wireless mobile devices to talk on the road — just hand-held devices.

“As long as the vehicle is in motion, we are expected to have both hands on the wheel,” Deputy Chief Miryam Anderson told commissioners. “The mere act of holding on to the phone violates the city ordinance.”

Instead of cell phones, drivers can use Bluetooth devices, which attach to the ears and speakers or voice-activated devices, Anderson said.

“It doesn’t mean one can’t have a conversation while driving,” Anderson said before the meeting. “It has to be done hands-free.”

In Texas, about 90 cities have approved similar ordinances, she said.

The proposed ordinance comes about a year after the state passed a law banning drivers from reading, writing and sending text messages.

How it would work

“An operator of a motor vehicle may not use a portable electronic device while operating a vehicle on any public street or highway within the city of Harlingen unless employing said device in a hands-free mode of operation and used to engage in telephone communication or listen to audio transmissions,” the proposed ordinance states.

Drivers cited for violations may defend themselves against prosecution if they are reporting illegal activity to law enforcement, communicating with an emergency response operator, a fire department, a hospital, a doctor’s office, a health clinic or reporting or preventing injury to persons or property, including animals.

The proposed ordinance would exempt postal workers, taxi drivers and those in “other occupations where regular, consistent communication with a central office or control center is an integral part of the job function.”

Violations would carry $200 fines.

Some concerns

From the audience, attorney Randy Whittington, representing the South Texas Care Foundation, requested the proposed ordinance further clarify those exempt, such as ambulance drivers.

Meanwhile, Chris Gonzales, chief executive officer of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern the proposed ordinance could hurt everyday business.

“I’m concerned about the impact it might have on business and our business community — people making phone calls for their everyday needs,” Gonzales said after the meeting. “I’d like it to be thought out. I think there needs to be more discussion.”

Boswell questioned the proposed ordinance’s enforceability.

“There are a lot of questions about this and a lot of concern,” Boswell said. “I see some questions of enforceability.”

Boswell requested officials contact cities with similar ordinances to help answer some of those questions.

“This is a work in progress,” Anderson said before the meeting. “We welcome our community’s input. It should be a joint effort.”

Hand-held cell phones distract drivers, too often leading to accidents, Anderson said.

In Harlingen, she said, 580 accidents were linked to cell phone use during the past three years.

Anderson cited Jorn’s death as linked to cell phone use.

On Sept. 13, 2017, investigators believe Jorn, who worked as an architect on many high-profile projects, was using a cell phone when she was killed in a crash following a collision between an 18-wheel truck and an SUV on the westbound lanes of Expressway 83 at Altas Palmas Road.

Across Texas, about 100,000 accidents and 444 deaths have been linked to cell phone use in the past three years, Anderson said.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com

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