January 25, 2014

Ham Radio in a School Zone?

By David Chenault (W5CWT) - In Texas, it's been illegal to use cell phones in most school zones for years, which prompted many hams to ask if their HTs and mobile rigs were off limits, too. Now that new legislation has expanded the area where cell phones are illegal, (and both police and school officials are on the look-out for new violators) it warrants a second look at the ham radio question.

More than five years ago, the Texas Legislature enacted new laws making it illegal to use cell phones while driving through most school zones. The "most" comes from the fact that school districts had to post signs along roads alerting drivers to the law before it could be enforced. Of course, most, if not all, school districts did.

Drivers were allowed to use phones as long as they were also using a "hands-free" feature or device. That was defined to include systems built into the car, temporary devices and even the phone's own "speaker phone" function.

Proponents say the law was successful, but needed expanding and the 2013 legislature agreed. New action amended the law to ban cell use by drivers on all school property (instead of just school zones) and specifically included crosswalks. Now, drivers anywhere on school property (even the stadium parking lot) must put the vehicle in park before making that call.

The good news for ham operators is they have been, and still are, exempted from law as long as they are using a ham radio and not a cell phone. (In other words, telling the cops you were using EchoLink on your smartphone won't get you out of a ticket!)

Still, the language of the law could be confusing for the non-initiated school official or possibly even a new police officer. Texas Transportation Code Sec. 545.425 lists the exemption in part (e). It is specifically for FCC licensed operators using a "radio frequency device" and not a wireless communications device. So now your nice new mobile transceiver is NOT a "wireless communications device? Well, according to the State of Texas (or at least Section 545.425), no it's not.  The law defines "wireless communications device" as a, "...device that uses a commercial mobile service..."

One caveat: This exemption may not apply to other areas where wireless devices have already been banned. Some cities and municipalities have passed their own laws prohibiting cell phone use by drivers and ham radios may or may not fall under those definitions. Right or wrong, those laws are for another argument.

So for now, it may be best to play it safe and either have a copy of law (and you ham license) with you in the car, or simply lay off the radio while picking up your kids. Because honestly, the only ticket you really want, is the one from the FCC!