Texas lawmakers move closer to banning texting while driving

Texas moved closer to passing a statewide ban on texting while driving as the state Senate approved a measure that's been defeated several times over the last decade. (Photo: Pixabay / Neil Esoy / MGN / Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Texas moved closer to passing a statewide ban on texting while driving on Friday, as the state Senate approved a measure that has been defeated several times over the last decade.

Forty-six states have laws banning texting while driving that typically also ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet. Dozens of Texas cities also prohibit texting while driving.

Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have passed versions of a ban that has gained momentum since a March church bus crash that killed 13 people. Federal investigators have said the driver of the pickup truck that hit the bus said he was checking for a text when the crash happened, and had been taking prescription drugs. Video taken before the accident showed the truck weaving on the road and crossing the center line.

The measure approved Friday would create a statewide ban that pre-empts local ordinances regarding texting only. It would prohibit the use of hand-held phones to "read write or send an electronic message" while driving, assessing a fine of up to $99 for first-time offenders and $200 for repeat offenses.

Advocates say the ban would be a life-saving measure and would deter people from using their phones in a way that can have deadly results.

"If this saves the life of one teenager who decides 'I'll wait' ... then we've accomplished what we set out to accomplish," said Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican.

“Elated to think that it’s going to become law," bill author Tom Craddick said Friday.

Craddick has filed a similar texting and driving ban bill in four straight Legislatures. He says the House will most likely concur with the bill which would send it to the governor's desk. He also says Abbott has voiced support for the bill in the past.

“He said he was in Midland so I’m assuming he still is," Craddick said.

Some lawmakers worry the ban would be difficult and too confusing to enforce and would give police new powers to pull over people who might be doing something legal if they mistake the presence of a phone or mobile device for texting. Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, noted that other potentially dangerous distractions would not be banned.

"We have a real problem with people being pulled over for things that are perfectly legal under this law," Taylor said. "I could read the newspaper (while driving) and under this law it's perfectly legal."

Bill sponsor Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has been pushing for texting while driving ban for 10 years. Texas lawmakers approved a ban in 2011 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who called it a "government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults."

There are concerns it could preempt local ordinances like Austin's hands-free ordinance. That comes from this line in the bill, "This section preempts all local ordinances, rules, or other regulations adopted by a political subdivision relating to the use of a portable wireless communication device by the operator of a motor vehicle to read, write, or send an electronic message."

While that says it would preempt local ordinances, it's only for those that deal with texting, Craddick says.

“You still have the hands-free and Austin will be able to keep that in effect and so we didn’t take away the rights of cities to have individual rights or ideas," Craddick said.

CLEAT also said it would not affect hands-free ordinances.

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