A bill that would make texting while driving illegal in hopes of saving countless lives is headed to the full Senate on a tight deadline but with a strong chance of making it to the governor, who has indicated he would sign it into law.
It’s been 10 years in the making.
“We are working hard and considering additional acceptable amendments that would help us secure 25 votes to suspend the three-day rule,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, referring to parliamentary procedure that could bring the bill to a vote sooner. “An April poll by Mike Baselice indicates that 90 percent of Texans believe texting while driving should be prohibited, and I pray that my colleagues will vote accordingly.”
House Bill 62, authored by former House Speaker Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday and was approved 5-1 Tuesday afternoon. The bill would ban the use of wireless communication devices while driving if used to read, write or send a text or e-mail to another person unless the vehicle is stopped. Violations are punishable with a $25-$99 fine. Continuous offenders would pay a $100-$200 fine. Hands-free use of a cell phone for talking would not be affected by the bill.
Since 2009, more than 90 cities, including San Antonio, have adopted one or more cell phone ordinances with fines ranging from $200 to $500 in absence of a statewide law. Texas is one of four states with no statute that bans texting while driving statewide. Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor for HB 62, has been pushing the effort for a decade.
The bill passed the Texas House with a 114-32 vote in March. If it passes the Senate, the bill still needs to go back to the House for its members to concur on Senate amendments. If the House doesn’t want to concur, the measure could be sent to a conference committee to negotiate a bill both chambers can accept. The deadline to accept a conference committee report or, in the alternative, dismiss the conferees and concur with amendments as originally requested, is May 28.
“I’ve been working on this 10 years and with Rep. Craddick for eight years,” said Zaffirini, who represents a part of San Antonio. “It’s been hard picking up one vote at a time. There are even members of the Senate who have told me they have texted, but that if this bill passes they will stop, because it is against law.”
A better chance this time
When she presented the bill at Monday’s hearing, Zaffirini offered a committee substitute with additional changes in hopes it would survive the Senate floor, which killed similar bills in 2013 and 2015. The bill would apply only to drivers who break the law in the presence of or within view of a peace officer. It would also preempt all local ordinances regarding texting to create a law applied statewide.
The committee substitute exempts drivers who use wireless communication devices for music applications or to operate navigation systems like GPS, and it would add a class A misdemeanor as an enhanced penalty if the offender caused death or serious bodily injury to another person. Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
The bill drew heightened attention after a highway accident left 13 people dead in Uvalde County. A mini bus loaded with people returning to New Braunfels from a church retreat in Leakey collided with a pickup. The driver of the pickup, Jack D. Young, told investigators that he was looking at his phone when he swerved across the center line and hit the bus head on.
Several amendments were added in the House before it was sent to the Senate.
One amendment by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano would protect drivers from prosecution if the device is used to report illegal activity, summon emergency help or for navigation devices. Another amendment, filed by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would protect drivers from double prosecution in counties where there are already local or municipal ordinances in place with similar texting-while-driving bans.
“Congratulations to Dean Craddick & the members of the Texas House for again passing a common-sense ban on texting while driving,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a tweet after the bill passed the House.
Last month, Craddick told the San Antonio Express-News that Gov. Greg Abbott would sign the bill if it ended up at his desk. The measure made it to the governor’s desk once, in 2011, but then-Gov. Rick Perry killed it, saying government shouldn’t be trying to micromanage adult behavior.
Enforcing the law
Under the bill, peace officers that stop motor vehicles for an alleged violation would not be authorized to take possession or inspect the device, and police officers cannot arrest people for the offense. These two provisions sparked opposition from lawmakers on the floor, arguing the law would not be enforceable.
“Law enforcement officers say they would have no problem enforcing the law, and enforcement would be conducted in a manner similar to that of Texas’ seat belt law,” she said. “Officers would not be able to inspect a phone without a driver’s permission, but this would not be necessary to enforce the law, especially because officers frequently observe persons texting while driving in plain sight.”
Committee chairwoman Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has been against the bill in previous legislative sessions but is now a strong supporter of the bill. She said that people’s lives have been tragically changed forever because of distracted driving.
“This is while you’re traveling, when you’re reading, typing on the road while moving. If something is against the law, it deters (unlawful) behavior,” she said.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, one in five crashes involves driver distraction, and drivers who use cell phones in their vehicles have a higher risk of collision than drivers who don’t.
Noel Johnson, legislative liaison of Texas Municipal Police Association, a lobbying group for law enforcement officers, said that police officers have to deliver bad news to families because their loved ones get killed due to distracted driving too often, and that HB 62 is a good bill that deals with the younger generations who depend on their smartphones.
“We would ask that this committee push this through because we believe this bill will save thousands of lives,” Johnson said.
This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News May 16, 2017.