State Politics

Texting while driving? If you are in Texas, you’re now breaking the law

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.

Just put the cellphone down when you’re behind the wheel.

That’s the golden rule for Texas drivers now, since a new law went into effect Sept. 1 banning texting while driving.

That means no written communications at all when you’re driving.

No posting on Facebook.

Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp are out.

Emails? Text messages? Nope.

Just put the phone down.

The statewide ban on texting and driving was one of 673 new Texas laws as of Sept. 1.

If you’re driving, you can still use your phone to talk hands-free. You also can use it to play music, operate a GPS, report a crime and seek emergency help.

But because of a spike in distracted driving crashes — and deaths — law enforcers locally and across the state are watching and ready to issue tickets when needed.

In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.

Anyone who violates this law and gets a ticket faces a misdemeanor charge and a fine between $25 to $99, although penalties could be as much as $200 for repeat offenders.

Anyone convicted of texting and driving who causes serious injury or death to others faces a fine of up to $4,000 and as long as one year in jail.

Until now, there have been state laws in place to prevent drivers from texting in school zones. And there are other laws to stop drivers younger than 18, as well as bus drivers transporting minor passengers, from texting while driving.

In Tarrant County, at least six cities — Arlington, Bedford, Grand Prairie, Hurst, Watauga and White Settlement — already have laws in place to target distracted driving, such as texting while driving.

‘Arrive Alive!’

Under the new state law, there’s no reading, writing or sending electronic messages while driving — unless the vehicle is stopped. Talking on your phone is OK (unless, of course, you’re in an active school zone).

And motorists may read an electronic message if they believe it’s an emergency situation.

Arlington police don’t want to say what they look for to spot texting-while-driving motorists because “it gives the edge to the motorist,” police Sgt. Vanessa Harrison said.

It’s been against the law to text and drive in Arlington since 2012. That year, police wrote 73 text-and-driving citations. The numbers declined annually to 56 in 2015 and then spiked to 104 last year.

Arlington police
Arlington police wrote 73 text-and-driving citations in 2012, the first full calendar year of the city ordinance. Joyce Marshall jmarshall@star-telegram.com

In Euless, officials are looking signs similar to what they see with drunk drivers: “Driving slowly, weaving, quick adjustments within the lane, along with someone visibly looking at their phone,” city spokeswoman Betsy Deck said.

In Keller, police are trying to get the word out about the new law, posting an “Arrive Alive!” video on Facebook to remind drivers about the new law and to share that at any given time during the day, 666,000 drivers are using their phones while driving.

Many cities say they plan to give drivers a probationary period to get accustomed to the new law.

Police and your phone

During traffic stops, law enforcers may not inspect the driver’s phone.

But if someone fights the ticket in court, prosecutors could subpoena the person’s texting history to show they were texting when they were stopped by police.

“However, as a practical matter, that is almost never going to happen,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “Trying to obtain those records from wireless service providers by subpoena or warrant is often going to be more trouble than it’s worth for an offense carrying such a small fine.”

And a ticket for texting and driving does not add points to a person’s driver’s license. In Texas, points are added to a person’s driving record for traffic convictions such as speeding.

Drivers must pay a “surcharge” every year they have six or more points on their record.

‘What is so important?’

North Richland Hills’ Dee Davila-Estelle is among those who fought for this new law.

She and her husband, Kevin, lost two of their three children in a deadly 2015 crash, when their family’s 2011 Ford Fusion was hit from behind on Interstate 35W near Fort Worth by a driver they were told was distracted by his phone while driving.

“This law is so important,” Davila-Estelle said. “People need to understand what texting while you’re driving does. I still see people out there with their phones while they are driving.

“This is common sense. Put your phone down. Don’t drive with your phone in your face.”

Davila-Estelle — whose two oldest children, Alex, 23, and Gabbi, 19, died in the crash — said this new law will save others.

estelle family
Alex Trejo and his brother, Zac Estelle, and sister Gabbi Estelle. Family photo

That’s why she testified before a Texas Senate committee advocating for the ban. And that’s why she wrote Texas Gov. Greg Abbott a letter urging support of this law.

“I want people to know our story and learn from it,” she said. “Having to bury loved ones, having to take care of loved ones, we are out here. It’s a true story and this is a great law for everyone to abide by.

“What is so important on that phone?”

The Texas Department of Transportation has long advocated for the law and has a “Talk, Text, Crash” campaign, encouraging drivers to get off their phones.

The reason? In Texas last year, distracted driving was blamed for 455 fatalities and more than 3,000 serious injuries — as well as 22 deaths and 236 serious injuries in Tarrant County, state records show.

In 2010, the number of statewide distracted driving fatalities was 415 with 2,269 serious injuries, and in Tarrant County, there were 13 deaths and 225 serious injuries.

“For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it,” said state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of House Bill 62, which creates the ban.

This year was the fifth time the law has been proposed in Texas. Craddick passed it through the Legislature in 2011, but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, saying it was “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

“It is time for Texas to join the 46 other states that already have banned this deadly habit,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who carried the bill in the Senate.

Shutting phones down

For parents worried about their younger drivers and whether they will obey the law, some apps and devices can shut down cellphones while someone is behind the wheel.

Here’s a sampling:

Cellcontrol: A subscription to this service gives parents access to a device that goes under the dashboard and an app to block your driver from texting while driving. It also disables other features on the phone, such as the camera, while they are driving.

DriveSafeMode: This app also prevents a driver from emailing or texting while behind the wheel. Not only that, but it also notifies a parent when the phone is being used — and if the motorist turns off the app while on the road.

Lifesaver: This is another app that blocks phone use while the car is in motion, even displaying a “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” banner on the phone.

Do Not Disturb While Driving: Apple users should soon have the option of enabling this setting to prevent texts and other messages from coming in while you are driving. If connected to hands-free technology, calls will be allowed through. Otherwise, it will send an automatic response to texters that you’re driving and will get back to them soon.

Surete: This is a device and app combination that stops drivers from texting, emailing or even using social media when they are behind the wheel. The app locks the smartphone once the vehicle starts, but it does allow GPS, emergency calls and the use of apps previously approved by the administrator (aka, a parent).

There’s a device that’s installed under the hood of the car, which connects the starter fuse and syncs to the app.

This article includes information from Star-Telegram archives.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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