Texas Politics

Texas: Texting and driving ban passes Senate, moves closer to becoming law

Drivers in Texas and across the country use mobile phones while sitting in traffic or driving.
Drivers in Texas and across the country use mobile phones while sitting in traffic or driving. AP

Dee Davila-Estelle had a hard time catching her breath Friday afternoon.

When she heard the Texas Senate passed a ban against texting while driving — moving it one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk — she was happier than she has been in years.

“This is the first step,” said Davila-Estelle, a North Richland Hills woman who lost two of her three children in a deadly 2015 accident involving a distracted driver. “This is historic.

“If this had happened a few years ago, I’d like to think my kids would still be here.”

This is the fourth session in a row that state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has filed a bill banning texting while driving. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, carried the bill in the Senate.

Zaffirini noted Friday that House Bill 62 doesn’t impact GPS systems or even music apps on cell phones.

She said signs would have to be posted throughout the state noting that texting and driving is not allowed here — and she said the measure prevents peace officers from taking driver’s cell phones and looking through them.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” Zaffirini said before the Senate approved the bill on a 23-8 vote.

Texas is among four states — as well as Arizona, Missouri and Montana — that don’t have statewide bans on texting while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Time for change?

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people across the country are injured in accidents that involve distracted drivers.

In Tarrant County last year, there were 22 fatal crashes, 236 incapacitating injury crashes and 1,851 possible injury crashes involving distracted driving, according to Texas Department of Transportation records.

Dozens of Texas cities from Arlington to San Antonio have outlawed texting while driving. And state laws do prevent texting in school zones and keeping both bus drivers with minor passengers and drivers younger than 18 from texting while driving.

But there has been no overall statewide ban.

HB 62 makes it a criminal offense if someone uses a “wireless communication device” while driving to “read, write or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped.”

Violations would be a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a fine between $25 and $99, unless the person already has been convicted of such an offense. Multiple offenses would draw fines between $100 and $200, according to the bill.

Craddick has said he will agree with changes made in the Senate. If that happens, and if Abbott signs the bill into law as expected, a ban on texting and driving will go into effect Sept. 1.

One texting while driving ban passed the Legislature in 2011, but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the proposal, saying it was a way to “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Under the 2017 bill, Texas motorists could still talk on the phone while driving, if motorists have a “hands-free device” that only requires them to briefly touch the phone or car to begin or end a call.

It also would not be a violation for a Texas motorist to summon emergency help, report illegal activity, read a text a driver “reasonably believed concerned an emergency” or communicate with a dispatcher while behind the wheel.

Critics say this isn’t the best way to address texting while driving. They say such a proposal would be hard to enforce — and would encroach on individual liberties.

‘We need to save some lives’

Davila-Estelle and her family — husband Kevin and their three children, Alex, 23, Gabbi, 19, and Zac, 18 — were last all together Dec. 21, 2015, when they went to The Texas Motor Speedway to see Christmas lights.

As they headed home in their 2011 Ford Fusion, they found themselves stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate-35 near Heritage Trace. Suddenly their car was hit, pushed forward about 380 feet, from the outside lane to the inside lane, and Davila-Estelle blacked out.

When she woke up, she heard her youngest son say he was ok.

Her two oldest children, Alex and Gabbi, didn’t make it.

“I told my babies it would be right,” Davila-Estelle said after Friday afternoon’s vote in the Senate. “This will help make it right.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.