Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

Related Posts:

15 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Has anyone actually run over and killed a kid in HISD or any of the surrounding districts because they were talking on a hand held phone in a school zone? I’m seriously asking, because if I had to guess, I’d say that the law is a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

  2. Ross says:

    An actual police presence in school zones from time to time would be even more effective. I am not sure what HISD police are doing in the mornings, but I seldom see them writing tickets to the idiots who speed through school zones. The only tickets I’ve seen issued since 2010 were by constables near Harvard Elementary.

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    I can tell you that there are not a lot school zone tickets being written.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Even if the signs are put up, how many cops are available to enforce the law? Even getting spotty enforcement of school speed zones is next to impossible courtesy of manpower issues yet some like King think signage is going to magically fix the problem? For the record, there are many more school zones open during posted hours than there are total police on the street, most of whom have to handle accidents, calls for help, and all the usual job duties.

  5. Paul Kubosh says:

    Steven,

    I think H.I.S.D. officers could do a whole lot more if there really was a big problem. Maybe Bill is right, maybe there isn’t a big problem. When is the last time a kid was hit in a school zone?

  6. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    Children hit by cars play well on local TV, so unsurprisingly a quick Google finds several accidents involving children in the Houston area over the last year. I don’t see any school-zone accidents specifically in HISD, but FBISD had one in May:
    http://www.click2houston.com/news/fbcso-10yearold-struck-by-vehicle-in-front-of-elementary-school/32861948
    Here’s a Montgomery County letter-to-the-editor that’s apropos:
    http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/courier/opinion/school-zones-are-death-traps/article_dcf063fc-86c4-5be1-bbbd-218587b29b12.html

    There’s probably actual research on this topic somewhere, traffic being the business that it is.

  7. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, PK, I concur. During the zone hours, there are crossing guards, all sorts of teachers, bus drivers and parents congregating to make the zones so congested that you’d really have to try to hit a kid. I know that is the complete opposite of Robbie’s letter to the editor moaning about death traps but you’re right, it is very uncommon.

    Part of the problem with school zones is not just their sheer abundance but how schools will put them on main thoroughfares where the kids don’t even walk. That detracts from the very real need for the zones on streets where the kids actually walk and makes many drivers grow complacent. Anyone that hasn’t creeped slowly through such a zone, no kids in sight (ever), figuring it is a speed trap on those rare occasions an officer is assigned to enforce speed laws, just hasn’t been looking too hard.

    While some may rightfully call the demand of specific signage to be yet another unfunded mandate from the state, after all, why not pass the law without a need for specific mention of using an electronic device, texting, or cell phone use, it looks like another “feel good” law in need of a problem. In 2017, petition the legislature to amend the law so that no special notice be needed, just that the school zone itself be adequately posted, hoping those imaginary 1500 officers some mayoral candidates keep suggesting they can find, hire and afford will catch a handful of violators for the media to hold up as nar do wells. 😉

  8. Bill Daniels says:

    @Steven:

    More likely, we should petition to scrap the law, just like the red light cameras. We already have a law against driver inattention. PK, you and your brother up for another fight for the people against tyranny? I’ve got my pitchfork ready!

  9. Paul Kubosh says:

    LOL, always.

  10. Bill Daniels says:

    @Robbie:

    The FBISD accident was investigated, and the driver was not ticketed, because the child darted out directly in front of the car. I’m sure had the driver been going 21 in a 20, had the wrong color pinstripe on the car, or had any other issue (like being found inattentive because the driver was on the phone), no matter how small, the driver would have been ticketed for something. IOW, had Mother Theresa been driving the car, the accident could not have been avoided. But hey, “it’s for the children,” so lets pass some more laws criminalizing more heretofore not criminal behavior.

    Ayn Rand has a great quote that is very appropriate here:

    “The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

  11. Ross says:

    And here I was thinking what we really need is a top notch school zone camera firm…

    bwahahaha

  12. matx says:

    As a parent who still drops off and picks up kid or kids, and been at it since 2001 at elementary, middle and high school in HISD (Oak Forest, Johnston, Clifton, Waltrip, Bellaire) the use of cell phones by drivers and students is ubiquitous. Drivers in school zones should have enough sense to put down the phones–they should be fully engaged with their driving responsibility. Bellaire is the only school that has the signs warning of an up to $200 fine for cell phone/texting use. I do not see drivers with their eyes riveted to spot somewhere between their dash and their laps when I glance in my rearview mirrors.

    A child riding his bike home from school was killed at the intersection of Oak Forest and 43rd (there is a “ghost bike” there now) by a driver who parked across the street from OF Elementary (where the Resource One Credit Union now stands) while picking up a from school. The boy was hit and dragged by the driver, who apparently did not even know she had hit him and other drivers and parents had to flag her down. There was some speculation that she had been on the phone when it happened.

  13. Steven Houston says:

    “I do not see drivers with their eyes riveted to spot somewhere between their dash and their laps when I glance in my rearview mirrors.” and “There was some speculation that she had been on the phone when it happened.”

    So we agree that this is not a common problem (ie: you drive such zones regularly and don’t see people breaking the law) and only speculation exists on the other case? Even if there were proper signage, wouldn’t it be better to charge for a higher level crime such as vehicular manslaughter or reckless driving should the facts merit it?

  14. Ross says:

    Bellaire is the only one of those schools that’s in a City where police may actually patrol school zones. It’s not just the cell phone usage that’s a problem. It’s the impatient drivers who decide that they aren’t going to wait for the line to make its way past the school, and go down the wrong side of the street to get past everyone. Or, the drivers who can’t see large flashing lights, and drive 40 in a 20. Absent police presence, school zones will never be as safe as they need to be. And part of that enforcement ought to be making the miscreant driver wait 30 minutes or an hour to receive their citation.

    The previous principal at Harvard was death on the bad drivers. He carried a stack of school zone rules, and handed them out to drivers who tried to ignore the school zone in front of the school. He also made them get back into the correct lane and wait for traffic to move along.

    @Steven, I think matx was saying Bellaire is the only school zone where eyes aren’t glued to a messaging app.

  15. Steven Houston says:

    Ross, having picked up far too many children in local school zones, the worst offenders I ever saw were teenagers in high school zones. In elementary and middle school zones, while the schools were letting out, it was extremely rare to see people going fast or driving recklessly. Those are the times when it is most important to be vigilant of course but they also seem to be the times when virtually everyone pays the most attention. I agree that having police in zones “encourages” drivers to behave but I’m not sure the tea party types are willing to let the rest of us pay for more coverage, nor that the average person is willing to foot the bill either.