Houston Enclave Bans Hands-Free Cell Phone Use Near School

August 11, 2008

The Houston enclave of West University Place has banned cell phone use for all drivers, the most stringent law of its kind in the nation.

The ban, which applies within a three-block radius of the city’s elementary school during school hours, is the latest in a long line of similar laws.

Still, none go so far as to punish all drivers for using hands-free sets.

Six states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of mobile handsets while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

West University Place Mayor Bob Kelly said the city decided to create the no-phone zone around the city’s only school due to concerns for children and the amount of congestion there each morning and afternoon.

John Walls, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, thinks the ban unfairly targets cell phone users.

“Focusing on one possible distraction could very well create a false sense of security,” Walls said. “It would be most effective to look at all the possible problems that can arise in situations that drivers could be confronted with and deal with them comprehensively.”

City officials said they decided to implement the law after a California study showed that use of either hand-held or hands-free phones had a distracting effect on drivers equal to driving drunk.

“That, I think, is what pushed us over to decide that it’s not a question of hands-free or hand-held,” Kelly said. “It’s just a question of talking on a cell phone.”

But Walls said other studies dispute those findings.

“To take into account the studies that conclude that it is a distraction and to ignore those that would conclude the contrary doesn’t do the whole debate justice,” Walls said. “To look at one potential behavior and highlight it and ignore dozens of others that are extremely common is not dealing with this situation as effectively as it could be.”

City Manager Michael Ross said the law will take effect Aug. 25. He added the only concern he’s heard from residents is whether they can take urgent calls while in the school zone. Ross advises motorists to park before taking calls.

“I’m not sure that any law can be too strict when you’re talking about protecting the children in these school zones,” Ross said. “It just doesn’t seem to be overly burdensome to say, ‘please hold on, put down the phone.'”

Drivers will be fined up to $200 for a first offense. Subsequent offenses can cost $500.

Lt. Thad Olive said crossing guards reported close calls involving cell phone-using drivers as they escorted children in the school zone.

“We’ve had a lot of near-misses reported to us,” Olive said. “So we started doing a little bit of on-site research on our school, just looking at it. Sure enough, it was a true issue, a true problem.”

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