City Council Meeting This Week: Texting and Billboard Ordinances

This week’s city council meeting should be interesting. There are two ordinances and related matters up for consideration that tend to light up comment threads.

The first is the texting ban that was passed earlier this year and is going for another reading before being put into effect next month (item 90 under Items from Council). Chip Rosenthal is one of those leading the opposition to the ban’s current wording. I tend to agree with Chip on all of his points. You can also follow Chip and this issue via the Facebook Fan Page if you’re into that sort of thing.

The second (item 92 under Items from Council) is something that the Statesman has called out via Twitter and on its City Beat blog. The city is considering reimbursing Reagan for moving a billboard that will be out of compliance with a city ordinance if it changes that ordinance (141 PH on the agenda) to require billboards to be 500 feet from residences. The actual resolution can be found here. After reading the comment thread on the Statesman, I’m not surprised that most of the commenters have neglected to even read the resolution.

As the Statesman post sort of indicates, City Council is proposing changing the ordinance that dictates how close the billboard can be to residences. If the ordinance changes, then the billboard will be out of compliance. If it was in compliance when it was erected, where does that leave Reagan? The rationale in the resolution is that we’re trying to promote growth downtown, so we need to make changes like this to promote that growth. That being said, it sounds like poor planning on someone’s part with respect to the zoning and the ordinances for signage. And, as others have already asked, if we have to pay to move this one, how many others are there? Will we pay for all of them too? Or is this one really getting special treatment? Don’t changes like this usually have grandfather clauses to avoid this sort of problem?

3 Comments so far

  1. triman on December 15th, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    I’ve avoided blogging on this as there really isn’t much to add that makes any sense once your starting point is allowing people to use handheld devices that are not fixed in someway to the car, for any purpose.

    It is reasonable to argue that a handheld telephone call distracts the driver in ways in which a conversation with another person in the car does not, the fact that this is the starting point, holding the device in their hand is simply wrong and evidently dangerous.

    It goes without saying these days that when you are driving up Mopac in the left lane, cruising just under or over the speed limit, if the car in front of you is doing 50MPH and there is nothing in the center lane, that person will be on a telephone call, and 99% of the time holding the phone. Heading west on Chavez, down where it splits to go to Lake Austin and Mopac, if someone passes you doing 50MPH, and then at the last minute cuts in to take Mopac, they will be talking on, and holding a phone.

    As well meaning as the city is to make up for the glaring lack of action by the state, this ordinance should be withdrawn and pressure applied to fixing the problem at the State level by banning the use of ANY device in your hand while driving, that would include phones, mp3 players, hair straighteners, brushes, etc. etc.. Why is it Texas doesn’t see this as a problem where most European Countries and many US states have already taken action ?

    I’m minded of the line in the Unforseen, to paraphrase “we are an American group of people who are used to owning cars and not having a bunch of sons and bitches telling us what to do with them”.

  2. ttrentham on December 15th, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    That’s always the trade-off isn’t it? Between freedom and public safety?

    I agree that once you’re going to ban texting, you might as well ban talking as well (and shaving and putting on makeup and having your dog in your lap). Talking is at least as bad of a distraction or worse than texting, mainly because it messes with your peripheral vision on the side where you’re holding the phone. But should they be banned with use of Bluetooth headsets? And where does using it as a music device fall? Does having it plugged-in sitting in the passenger seat next to me fall under your “in the hand” rule or is that fixed to the car?

  3. triman on December 16th, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    I’m not arguing against the use of wireless devices in cars, that would be both useless and even more difficult to enforce over time as a wireless device becomes more and more difficult to define.

    My issue to start with is holding devices in your hand. If txting is dangerous, as would be facebook, email, twitter etc. then the objection must be the distraction of the handheld device, surely not the creation of the message. Google voice translation will soon make the holding of the device in order to “thumb” out a message, redundant. I can already send facebook, livejournal, and twitter updates from my car without EVER having taken the phone from my pocket.

    So, there are two issues. 1. The distraction of taking, receiving calls and sending messages. Lets agree that no matter what we claim, even with hands free kits, we are not concentrating 100% while doing this. There is little or no difference in the distraction between saying two two four three hash, twitter, read and having my tweet stream read to me via the phone over a wireless handheld, than there is me dialing 1-800-conf-call from my steering wheel and listening to a reply of an Austin City Council meeting. They both require some attention which distract from my cognitive awareness while driving. 2. Holding a device to do any of the above adds risk and danger since it requires me to use one or two hands and I loose control of the car, however briefly and despite the fact that I’ve got the steering wheel jammed by my knees.

    The City ordinance is only attempting to address item-2, and it does so by attempting to define it by trying to narrowly define it in terms of non-voice communication. Thus it isn’t really trying to address the problem, just to address a perceived issue in a way which is populist as it doesn’t infringe on the majority.

    I say, you should be able to use any device, appliance, instrument etc. in your car at any time, provided that you do not have to remove your hands from the steering wheel to initiate, use, or terminate the use of that device.

    So yes, you can use your bluetooth headset provided it has voice recognition and you can demonstrate, if stopped, that you can use it. That may require you to have a device mounted to a user installed, or factory fitted cradle, but is not mandatory. Note however that you must, when stopped, be able to demonstrate use without touching the device etc. it is not sufficient to say its hand free voice recognition if you do not know and cannot show how to use it.

    Even without defining hairbrushes, shavers, lipsticks, etc. you have by default banned them, since they cannot be operated without removing your hands from the steering wheel. This doesn’t ban talking on the phone, which assuming it is done hands free, would be difficult if not impossible to prove. It isn’t sufficient to say you can get the cellphone company records, since increasingly, voice-over-IP will be used for telephone calls, thats all cellphone calls are anyway, it’s just that the cellphone companies have so far managed to obfuscate this from us…

    Whatever you do though, lets not get started on food, hot drinks and smoking in the car…

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