Texas vs. Texting and Driving, Round 5

Texas vs. Texting and Driving, Round 5.

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Texas legislators[1] have filed identical bills in the Senate and House proposing a statewide ban on texting while driving.

This has happened beforeMore than once.  The texting-while-driving ban battle has been waged in so many Texas legislative sessions that media coverage is losing count of how many times a similar bill has been introduced.[2]

The bill before the Texas Legislature for 2017 reads much like the four before it:

(b)  An operator commits an offense if the operator uses a portable wireless communication device to read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped.[3]

Over 95 cities in Texas have already passed local ordinances banning texting while driving.[4] Some of these cities oppose the statewide legislation being considered.

The bill as currently proposed carves out exceptions for dialing phone calls, using GPS, and using hands-free features.[5] Austin would strongly oppose the bill with these exceptions unless it declines to preempt local laws because Austin has tried a law with exceptions and determined that it failed.

The Austin City Council banned all electronic device usage, with no exceptions, in 2015 after concluding that the 2013 ordinance with GPS and dialing exceptions was unenforceable because most motorists would say they were checking GPS or looking up numbers to avoid prosecution.[6]

Thus one battle within the battle to pass a statewide text-driving ban is the battle for uniformity of Texas law vs municipalities like Austin that have compelling reasons to oppose preemption of their existing ordinances.

City ordinances are also divided on how they interpret the proposed bill as it is currently worded.[7] San Antonio and Austin passed laws that, like the currently proposed bill, forbid texting “unless the vehicle is stopped.” However, San Antonio defines “stopped” as parked and off of the roadway while Austin allows texting at stoplights. Thus Texas legislators may have to iron out whether they intend to make their proposed law a “San Antonio stop” or an “Austin stop.”

Each year, there is yet more evidence documenting that texting while driving is dangerous.[8] That is the simple and settled issue.  It remains to be seen if the Legislature and Texas municipalities can agree on the best solution to the problem. However, H.B. 62 cleared the House Transportation Committee and was sent to the full chamber for a vote on Thursday, March 9.[9]

[1] Rep. Tom Craddick-R and Sen. Judith Zaffirini-D.

[2] Is the 4th Time a Charm for Statewide Ban of Texting While Driving Bill?, KXAN, Jan. 23, 2017; Nicole Cobler, For Fifth Time, Lawmakers to Decide Ban on Texting While Driving, Texas Tribune, Nov. 25, 2016. This is the fourth time Rep. Craddick has filed a proposed text ban bill and the fifth time for Sen. Zaffirini.

[3] H.B. 62, 85th Leg., R.S.; S.B. 31, 85th Leg., R.S.

[4] Chuck Lindell, Texas Senate Fights Statewide Ban on Texting While Driving, Government Technology, Aug. 22, 2016.

[5] Is the 4th Time a Charm.

[6] Lindell, Texas Senate Fights Statewide Ban on Texting While Driving.

[7] Compare San Antonio ordinance, Nov. 6, 2014, with Austin ordinance No. 20140828-041.

[8] A study of AT&T’s cell-phone networks found that drivers in Texas, Arizona, Montana, and Missouri—the four states without anti-texting laws — were 17% more likely to text while driving than residents of states with anti-texting laws. Chuck Lindell, Why Texting-While-Driving Ban Remains an Uphill Climb in Texas, Austin American-Statesman, Aug. 19, 2016. Alva Ferdinand, a Texas A&M University assistant professor of health policy and management, conducted research showing that states with a texting ban had a 3% reduction in fatalities and a 7% reduction in accidents that required hospitalization. Id.

[9] Dug Begley, Bill to Ban Texting While Driving Clears First Hurdle in Texas House, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 9, 2017.