Officials Hope Drivers Voluntarily Stop Texting

December 2, 2009

Although the texting-while-driving ban that may go into effect in December has lost some of its bite, many city officials are not concerned because they expect drivers to voluntarily comply with the new law.

A change that the West University Place City Council made in late November to the proposed texting-while-driving prohibition will make it easier for traffic violators to get out of tickets, and harder for the city to prosecute them. But the extra difficulty prosecuting violators may not matter that much.

“I think we will see voluntary compliance by most of the drivers,” said West U. Police Chief Ken Walker. “I don’t anticipate large numbers of tickets being written.”

The council decided to rewrite the ordinance to more plainly indicate that the texting ban only applies to moving vehicles, and to remove references to affirmative defenses, which listed reasons that violators could use to argue against their prosecution. For example, a violator could get out of a ticket if she showed she texted out of fear for her life or she was stopped when she texted.

The city council’s change switches the burden of proof from the traffic violator to the city.

“Basically it changes who has to prove what if there is a trial,” said City Attorney Alan Petrov. “If you say it’s against the law to text while driving, then basically a prosecutor has to prove a person is one, texting and two, driving. If instead you say it’s against the law to text, but an affirmative defense is you can text while stopped, then basically all the prosecutor has to prove is the person was texting.”

It would be the responsibility of the traffic violator to then prove an affirmative defense to avoid prosecution. Petrov said he originally included the affirmative defenses because that’s how the City of Austin wrote its texting-while-driving ban, which will go into effect in January.

Councilman George Boehme proposed the change that makes it somewhat harder for the city to prosecute drivers who text. He said he wanted to avoid the complicated legalese that the affirmative defenses introduced to the law.

“I believe to the extent possible we should make laws where a layman can read them and understand them,” Boehme said. “The main reason I wanted to change the language of it was so it’s simpler to understand.”

But Boehme also said he had a “philosophical problem” with the affirmative defense concept because it placed the burden of proof on residents. He said he wanted residents to be presumed innocent in court, and it should be the city’s responsibility to bring evidence to prove a person violated the law.

Councilman Chuck Guffey voted against changing the law because he said he thinks it’s appropriate to make things “easier on police and harder on the offender.”

“I think the burden ought to be on the citizen if they’re caught doing that,” Guffey said. After other council members voted to make the change anyway, Guffey did end up voting to approve the final ordinance because he said the point wasn’t how the law would be prosecuted.

“It’s about making people to do the right thing,” Guffey said.

Mayor Bob Kelly voted to approve Boehme’s change even though originally he wanted to make the law even tougher. During the beginning of the Nov. 16 discussion Kelly said he thinks drivers should pull to the side of the road to text instead of being allowed to text while waiting at a stop light or stop sign.

“Just because you come to a stop at a stop sign or red light you should still be thinking in terms of driving that vehicle,” Kelly said. “When you get on that Blackberry or whatever and you start texting or reading a text, your mind is a thousand miles away.”

When no other council members expressed an interest in his change, Kelly said he chose to support Boehme’s revision to get a “unanimous vote.”

“I think as a practical matter we may only write a few tickets and the word will get out,” Kelly said. “Then we won’t have problems with it.”

The revised ordinance will not go into effect until the council votes a second time in mid December.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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