Texting while driving ban passes Texas House

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- The Texas House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would impose a statewide ban on texting while driving after rejecting - by the thinnest of margins - an amendment that proponents said would have effectively killed the bill.

A final House vote, expected on Wednesday, will send the measure to the Senate, where its prospects for passage appear uncertain. Gov. Rick Perry, who vetoed a similar measure in 2011, has criticized the latest bill as a form of "government micromanage" but says he will wait until the bill reaches his desk before taking a position.

In spite of the potential difficulties ahead, the 98-47 House vote brought tears of joy to two women who watched the debate from the House gallery.

Kathy Bond of Fort Worth and Jennifer Zamora-Jamison of Roanoke, both clutching photos of loved ones whom they said were killed in accidents with distracted drivers, hailed the House action as a pivotal step toward enactment of the bill.

"We're ecstatic," said Bond. "We're one more step to saving people lives."

Bond's 22-year-old daughter, Katrina Bond, was killed after her car was rear-ended while she was stopped at a construction zone on Sept. 7, 2011. Zamora-Jamison's husband, Staff Sgt. Javier Zamora, died in a head-on collision just nine months after he had returned from combat in Iraq.

HB63 by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, would make it a misdemeanor for drivers to use handheld wireless devices to read, write or send texts while driving. The first offense would be punishable by fines of up $100 fine. A second offense would carry a maximum $200 fine.

The debate provoked sharp divisions that cut across party lines. Supporters called Craddick's bill a needed remedy against an epidemic of traffic accidents and fatalities caused by distracted driving. Opponents warned that the measure could encroach on civil liberties and lead to racial profiling.

The differences were most apparent over an amendment by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston. The amendment would have required an officer to have a ¡§probable cause¡¨ to stop a vehicle besides the suspicion that the motorist was texting while driving.

Dutton, an attorney, defended his amendment as an attempt to curb government overreach and prevent racial profiling, but supporters countered that it was an overt attempt to gut the proposed ban. Craddick, a former House speaker, told Dutton that his amendment would "take away the whole concept of the bill."

In what was believed to be the closest vote of the session, the House rejected the amendment by a vote of 72-72. The margin widened slightly in a recount, with House members voting 74-69 against the amendment.

Tarrant County's delegation split 5-5 on the bill. Reps. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, supported the bill.

Voting no were Reps. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Republicans Craig Goldman, Stephanie Klick and Matt Krause, all from Fort Worth. Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, was absent.

Burnam said he supports a ban on texting while driving but said he opposed the measure because of the potential of racial profiling. He criticized Craddick for not accepting an amendment to correct the concerns.

Zedler said he was also conflicted on the bill. "I still have concerns about it," he said after the vote. "I think it gives police too much probable cause to pull you over." But he said he ultimately cast his vote in support, saying "something needs to be done" about distracted driving. Capriglione offered an amendment that would have terminated the law after two years but lost by a vote 101-39. "I can see this bill going down a slippery slope," he said, citing what he said was mixed evidence of the effectiveness of texting bans in other states.

Turner, a co-author of the bill, said the measure "will ultimately make our roads safer" by serving as a deterrent against texting while driving.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who is carrying the companion bill in the Senate, SB28, applauded the House action and said she hopes to get a hearing on her measure in the Senate Transportation committee.

"I'm hoping we can pass it." she said. "I think it'll be difficult but we'll work it. We always do."

Perry hasn't budged

ƒoPerry's continuing reservations about the bill also cloud the ultimate outlook for the measure. Spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said that Perry's position has not changed since he vetoed the measure after it passed the Legislature in 2011.

"The government shouldn't be in the business of micromanaging adults," Nashed said Wednesday. "We already have laws governing distracted drivers and prohibiting drivers under 18 from using cellphones."

"He'll take a look at any bill that makes it to his desk but his position has not changed," she said.

Nearly 40 states have adopted text bans, as well as a number of Texas cities. Craddick said a statewide law is needed to bring uniformity to what is now a confusing patchwork of local ordinances.

Arlington became the first North Texas city to ban texting while driving after a rash of accidents attributed to distracted drivers, including those involving cellphones. At least 24 other cities, including Austin, El Paso and San Antonio, have also adopted the ban.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram¡¦s Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471. Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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