State Politics

Statewide ban on texting while driving approved by Texas House

Driving performance declines when texting

Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. At 55 mph, that's enough time to cover the length of a football field.
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Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. At 55 mph, that's enough time to cover the length of a football field.

The Texas House on Wednesday passed a statewide ban on texting while driving, and supporters are hopeful that the long-sought legislation will finally make it to the governor’s desk and be signed into law this year.

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban.

Members voted 113-32 to tentatively approve the legislation, which will get a final vote in the House before it can proceed to the Senate. A Senate committee has passed a similar measure, but it faces significant opposition there.

Among the senators opposed is Tarrant County Republican Konni Burton, who considers the ban impossible to enforce.

Under the measure passed by the House, offenders would be charged with a misdemeanor and be fined $25 to $99. Repeat offenders would have to pay between $100 and $200 in fines.

For years, the bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has pushed legislation that would penalize drivers who use their phones on the road.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

About three dozen Texas cities, including Arlington, already have a texting-and-driving ban in place. Cities would still be allowed to implement ordinances that are stricter than the proposed state law.

The state does already ban drivers who are in school zones, those who are under the age of 18, and bus drivers with minors on board from using phones while driving.

In a tweet, House Speaker Joe Straus congratulated Craddick on what he called “common-sense” legislation.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns about how a police officer could tell that a person was texting, especially because the legislation said officers could not take and inspect the phone.

“I find it absolutely incredulous, except for Superman, who can tell what you are doing on your phone,” said Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., a Houston Democrat, who noted law enforcement may not be able to distinguish between someone who is texting or using GPS.

In response, Craddick said that law enforcement have said they can consistently tell if people are texting.

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, tacked an amendment onto the bill that says police officers cannot arrest people for texting while driving.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, also proposed that drivers not be ticketed “for using their phone while under 10 miles per hour, also known as I-35.”

The National High Traffic Safety Administration estimates that every day in the United States, more than eight people are killed in crashes that involve a distracted driver.

Statistics show that 14 percent, or 483, of the 3,534 deaths from traffic crashes in Texas in 2014 involved a distracted driver.

In Fort Worth, distracted driving factored in to 14, or 16.45 percent, of the city’s 85 fatalities, in 2015, records show.

Craddick noted Wednesday that more and more families lose loved ones to distracted driving and no Texas laws target the offense.

“That’s the sad part, because those families have somehow been affected by some type of accident or death that’s happened because of no texting while driving [ban],” Craddick said.

Tarrant voices

Dozens of those families have gone to Austin to let lawmakers know how they feel.

Among them was North Richland Hills’ Dee Davila-Estelle was among those who attended a news conference with proponents earlier in the legislative session. She and her husband, Kevin, lost two of their three children in a deadly 2015 accident, when their family’s 2011 Ford Fusion was hit from behind on Interstate 35 by a driver they were told was distracted by his phone while driving.

“We went from a family of five to a family of three in the blink of an eye,” Davila-Estelle said. “It has been so hard. Our family motto used to be ‘live, laugh, love.’ Our new motto is ‘one step, one breath, repeat.’

“We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t move. We didn’t know how to function as half a family any more.”

Some foes — including Burton, R-Colleyville — haven’t budged.

“I continue to be against any bill that bans texting while driving,” Burton said last month. “It would be a wholly unenforceable law because an officer cannot reliably distinguish between a person texting on their phone or simply looking at a map, etc.

“However, I am for what Texas current has on the books — these laws already provide police ample reason to pull a driver over based on observable actions.”

Staff writers John Gravois and Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report, which contains material from the Star-Telegram archives and The Dallas Morning News.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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