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Austin approves distracted driving study

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There's a new push to expand Austin's ban on texting and driving. Now the city's looking at distracted driving in general.

The Austin city council approved the creation of what's called a distracted driving study group. The goal is to consider expanding the current ordinance that makes it illegal to text and drive.

The key question is just how far down the road of regulating personal behavior is the council willing to go.

Spotting someone driving and chatting on a cell phone is as common, nowadays, as Austin's gridlock. With new electronic devices being added to vehicles the temptation to turn one's attention away from the road is greater than ever.

About 5 years ago, the Austin City Council approved an ordinance making it illegal to text and drive. Mike Martinez, who was among those voting for it, now he says the time may be right to expand the law.

"There are many forms of distracted driving, what we know is we need to do more. We have an average of 80 deaths on our roadways every year and we need to do everything we can to improve that outcome," Martinez said.

According to state records, in 2012, there were 90,000 wrecks in Texas caused by distracted driving. Of those, 18,468 people were seriously hurt and 453 people were killed.

Distracted driving is not just using an electronic device, it includes eating, reading, even getting a shave like this man or putting on makeup. Molly Kirkpatrick has seen her share.

"Everybody does stuff when they are in their car whether its eating or whatever. Makeup? Makeup yeah, I'm guilty of it I've done it but it's not safe," Kirkpatrick said.

The only type of distraction prohibited by the law, currently on the books in Austin involves texting. The idea of outlawing more troubles drivers like Patrick Dempsey.

"I think for me it's a balance between your civil liberties and freedom but at the same time being a father and husband you see it all the time out there so I think something needs to be done somewhere along the way," Dempsey said.

Expanding the ban to the point of only allowing hands-free devices may make it easier to enforce the law. But a recent report suggested doing that would not eliminate the risk.

Researchers with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute recently put 43 drivers on a closed course. It was determined that voice to text applications like Siri offered no safety advantage over using your fingers to text while driving.

Councilman Martinez expects some push back from people who say expanding the law is another example of legislating morality.

"But they could make other recommendations as well as it relates to an education awareness campaign," Martinez said.

The study group could present a report to the City Public Safety Commission by late spring.

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