With Texas’ new texting-while-driving law kicking off Sept. 1, motorists in many cities with their own laws have had years to acclimate.
Some are adjusting better than others, said Bedford police Sgt. Mike Hager, who still finds many drivers with their noses to their phones.
“I’ve ridden a mile, two miles beside cars [with texting drivers], and they didn’t even know I was there,” said Hager, supervisor of the traffic division and its six officers. But when violators do spot him, he added, it’s clear they’re aware of the law. “You drive up on people with a cellphone and they drop it in their lap.”
Bedford is among six Tarrant County cities — Arlington, Grand Prairie, Hurst, Watauga and White Settlement are the others — that have adopted ordinances targeting distracted driving while the Legislature was trying and failing several times to pass its own.
Texas, at the moment, is among four states without a comprehensive texting-and-driving law. But House Bill 62, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 6, will ban texting, reading and writing from a handheld phone while the user is driving. It allows talking on phones and using GPS location features.
Fines range from $25 to $99 for first offenses and $100 to $200 for subsequent citations.
But based on the number of tickets already being written in cities that already have ordiances, chances are slim that you’ll get a ticket.
In Arlington, about 400 citations were issued from 2012 through May 2017.
Even if are ticketed, violations are misdemeanors that don’t affect the status of driver’s licenses or insurance rates, said Laura Adams, senior analyst for InsuranceQuotescom. But she said texting and driving that turns into carelessness that endangers others “comes with points, which are red flags to insurance companies.”
The law supplements existing regulations, including bans on people under 18 using cellphones while driving and on anyone using cellphones while driving in school zones.
My city of Midland got tired of me not being able to pass no-texting-and-driving, so they passed a local ordinance.
Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the new state law
But more than 100 cities in the state have their own distracted-driving ordinances, many deciding the issue was too important to wait.
State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland,, the state law’s author, felt that pressure at home as the Legislature and former Gov. Rick Perry rejected bills in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“My city of Midland got tired of me not being able to pass no-texting-and-driving,” said Craddick, a former House speaker. “So they passed a local ordinance.”
Arlington leaders also were feeling pressure to take action as texting-related accidents became a national and local issue. Residents were asking why the city didn’t have regulations, said Councilwoman Sheri Capehart. The council was concerned about the increasing number of tourists to the city “who aren’t as familiar with our roadways and get a little lost going to our events,” she said, calling it an issue of “safety for our citizens and visitors.”
Officials first checked with state legislators, Capehart recalled, “to ask if they were going to do something, and they didn’t seem to have a real good idea if the state was going to address it or not.”
The city ordinance was adopted in September 2011, banning drivers from texting, reading, writing, gaming and other hands-on interaction with cellphones.
Safety advocates say the statistics warrant action. Texting and other distracted-driving behaviors cause more than 420,000 injuries and more than 3,100 deaths every year on U.S. roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In any given daytime moment, the agency estimates, about 660,000 drivers on the road are using cellphones.
In Texas last year, distracted driving was blamed for 455 fatalities and more than 3,000 serious injuries, including 22 deaths and 236 serious injuries in Tarrant County, according to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Talk, Text, Crash campaign. It says there were 109,658 distracted-driving crashes in Texas last year, a 3 percent increase over 2015.
“The nationwide epidemic of distracted driving is killing people every day,” said Grand Prairie police spokesman Mark Beseda, whose city has had a texting-and-driving ban since December 2013. “It was a no-brainer as to why we adopted it. We’re just one of the few cities that chose to go ahead and get it going. I’m glad the state has finally kicked in.”
State law rules
The Arlington ordinance, like Midland’s, closely resembles the state law, but many cities — including Bedford, Hurst and Watauga — have more restrictive ordinances that ban the use of cellphones outright unless in hands-free mode (or during emergencies). Those conflicts are OK, for now.
But Abbott has called a special session for July 18, and his agenda includes amending the texting law to prevent cities and counties from regulating mobile devices in vehicles at all. With a state law in place, he said, he wants to avoid a “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”
Craddick would oppose that measure. Even though his bill mainly outlaws texting and driving, he wants local governments to be free to be tougher if they want to. His West Texas neighbors of Amarillo and El Paso are hands-free only.
Hands-free-only ordinances are much easier to enforce, area police officials say. Under regulations that address texting only, drivers who are pulled over often claim they were just talking on the phone, not texting. And no law empowers police to confiscate a phone to check texts and emails for time stamps at a misdemeanor traffic stop, officials note.
[Drivers] offer all types of other excuses outside of texting. So the burden of proof is on the officer.
Sgt. VaNessa Harrison, Arlington police spokeswoman, on the challenges of enforcement
Police observation is enough to write the citations and force the drivers to city court if they want to challenge. In those cases, though, police have the burden of showing up in court.
Drivers “offer all types of other excuses outside of texting,” said Sgt. VaNessa Harrison, an Arlington police spokeswoman. “So the burden of proof is on the officer.”
The number of Arlington citations issued for violating city ordinance versus the state’s hands-only ban in school zones illustrates the difference in burden, Harrison said.
While 387 tickets were written under the city ordinance from 2012 through May, 1,467 tickets were issued for school zone infractions over the same period.
Arlington police declined to make a traffic officer available to comment on enforcement of the texting ban, Harrison said, out of concern it might reveal tips on how officers make citations stick.
“You have to be able to explain how they violated that law,” Harrison said. “We don’t want to give away what we look for because it’s tough enough as it is.”
Police departments get creative. Some have put officers in big trucks or buses where they can see down into cars and more easily spot violations.
In Texas last year, distracted driving was blamed for 455 fatalities and more than 3,000 serious injuries, including 22 deaths and 236 serious injuries in Tarrant County. There were 109,658 distracted-driving crashes in Texas last year, a 3 percent increase over 2015. Texas Department of Transportation
Arlington police wrote 73 text-and-driving citations in 2012, the first full calendar year of the city ordinance. The numbers declined annually to 56 in 2015 and then spiked to 104 last year. This year’s tickets are at half that pace.
Meanwhile, school zone tickets peaked at 480 in 2011 and steadily declined to 165 tickets last year.
Lt. Chris Cook, the department’s chief spokesman, said it’s difficult to explain the 2016 jump in citywide citations.
“Enforcement varies from time to time depending on focused priorities and locations that officers are concentrating on,” Cook said in an email. But on the decline in tickets written near schools, he said, “I believe we have done a great job in educating the public on not using wireless communication devices in school zones.”
Grand Prairie police statistics don’t distinguish between citations written on the city ordinance and the state school zone law. The numbers have increased dramatically from 242 citations in the first full calendar year in 2012 to 1,211 citations last year, generating a total of $350,163 in fines through June 2.
Beseda, the Grand Prairie police spokesman, said the cause of the ticket increase isn’t clear.
Overall, Grand Prairie police wrote 64,605 traffic tickets last year, including 1,089 for speeding in school zones.
Bedford police statistics also are not separated by city and state law. Officers wrote 211 tickets during the first 12 months after the law took effect in November 2014, 255 tickets the second year and 124 through last November.
Jennifer Smith was a real estate agent in Grapevine when her mother was killed in a 2008 crash in Oklahoma with a pickup driven by a college student who was talking on his cellphone. She became an advocate, rallying families of victims of distracted-driving accidents to support the several previous legislative efforts that ended up failing.
We’re not just fighting against texting and making phone calls while driving. There’s no limit to what people can do with their phones now.
Jennifer Smith, founder of StopDistractions.org
Smith, who founded the StopDistractions.org advocacy organization in 2012, noted that cellphones are infinitely more distracting than they were in 2008, just a year after Apple rolled out the first smartphone.
“We’re not just fighting against texting and making phone calls while driving,” said Smith. “They’re videoing themselves, taking selfies; they’re on Facebook Live, Instagram, Twitter. They’re watching Netflix while they’re driving. There’s no limit to what people can do with their phones now.”
So while the Texas law isn’t as tough as she and other advocates might want, she supports it — but she’ll rally her families to fight any attempt in special session to override stricter local ordinances.
“This is a long-overdue step for Texas,” she said. “But it’s just a start. If we really want to reduce these fatalities because of distracted driving, we know we have to do more.”