Fatal Alcohol Crashes Mirror Fatal Distracted Driving Accidents

With lightning-quick speed for local-government bureaucracy, the San Antonio City Council banned talking on the cellphone while driving last Thursday. The amended distracted-driving ordinance takes effect January 1 and prohibits the use of handheld cellphones to talk, play games, use GPS, or read and send texts. The last two activities were outlawed in 2010.

Council unanimously approved the ban just three months after District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher first proposed it in a council consideration request.

According to San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus, who recommended the changes to council, there were more than 250 crashes in the Alamo City this year that were directly related to drivers using their cellphones while driving.

However, to put that number in perspective, the Texas Department of Transportation reported 34,858 crashes in San Antonio in 2013. One hundred and fifty-two of those were fatal crashes that resulted in 167 fatalities. In Bexar County, for the same time period, there were a total of 39,695 crashes—172 of those fatal crashes resulting in 188 deaths.

Here's the kicker: More than half of those Bexar County crashes were directly related to some form of distracted driving. Of those 20,000-plus accidents, 61 were fatal crashes resulting in 68 deaths.

That's eye-opening, isn't it? Keep those peepers open and keep reading.

In 2013, there were 2,103 alcohol-related crashes, of which 58 were fatal crashes resulting in 66 deaths. In Bexar County, the tally jumps to 2,303 alcohol-related crashes—65 being fatal crashes resulting in 73 deaths.

While distracted driving can include a myriad of things—illegal and not—including fiddling with the radio, yelling at the kids, talking on the phone, texting or operating a GPS device, the numbers are persuasive: Distracted driving in Bexar County resulted in nearly the same number of fatalities in 2013 as alcohol-related crashes.

And so it was with a sense of urgency that council members approached Thursday's vote. Even the council's most regular (and more colorful/offensive) critic, Jack M. Finger, struggled during the public comments because he agreed with City Council. But Finger found his opening toward the end of his time and accused council members of not doing enough.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña seemed to hone in on this point, musing that all of Texas should ban cellphone use while driving.

Viagran asked whether banning cellphone use was part of the Alamo City's legislative agenda. It isn't. And Saldaña complained that once you leave city limits, you can pick that phone right back up.

"The only point I'm making is that it would make sense for us to take a stand as a city to move toward [placing this] on the legislative agenda," Saldaña said.

In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed a statewide texting ban, saying it's not the government's job to micromanage adults. McManus told Saldaña it's impossible to know how Governor-elect Greg Abbott would react to such a ban. However, a simple Google search reveals Abbott is very much against statewide texting-while-driving bans, so good luck with that as a legislative agenda item.

San Antonio joins Austin, Corpus Christi and El Paso with the amended ordinance. Twenty-three Texas cities have passed ordinances banning texting while driving. And according to McManus, Fort Worth is considering a similar "hands-free" ordinance.

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