Texas

Texas banned texting and driving a year ago. Why won’t we stop doing it?

No text and drive a year later

September 1 marks the first year anniversary of of no texting and driving in Texas. Still at it?
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September 1 marks the first year anniversary of of no texting and driving in Texas. Still at it?

If you aren’t doing it, you’ve probably seen someone else doing it.

Just look around the next time you are behind the wheel. Chances are you’ll see someone reading or texting on their phone while they are driving.

“With their heads down, they’re texting, they’re swerving, they’re blowing through stop signs and red lights,” actor Jensen Ackles said in a video PSA announcement. “Not cool, y’all. And not safe.

“And one other thing: It’s not legal, either.”

In Texas, a law banning texting while driving went into effect one year ago, on Sept. 1, 2017.

Since then, law enforcers have been watching for violators — and issuing tickets.

Police ticketed 80 violators in Fort Worth, three in Arlington and one in North Richland Hills, according to data obtained by the Star-Telegram after filing public information requests with those cities.

Statewide, 1,195 tickets and 4,247 warnings have been given to drivers by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, a public information request shows.

“You are 23 times more likely to get into a collision when you text and drive, so it’s extremely risky,” said Joan Woodward, executive vice president of Public Policy at Travelers and president of the Travelers Institute. “Every tool available to help reduce distracted driving, including regulations like texting and driving bans and law enforcement, is important.”

Just the facts

Every time a driver texts, that person takes his or her eyes off the road for at least five seconds.

At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field without looking at the road, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Last year, more than 100,000 accidents in Texas were the result of distracted driving, killing 444 and injuring more than 2,800, Texas Department of Transportation data shows.

Of those, 22 fatal crashes and 24 fatalities were in Tarrant County, state records show.

But plenty of people admit that they text and drive.

Even though 97 percent of drivers say they know texting and driving is a big threat to public safety, more than two in five read text messages or emails while driving and more than one in three say they type text messages or emails while driving, according to AAA’s 2017 Traffic Safety Culture Index.

“Remember, distracted driving of any kind is dangerous,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation. “If you must talk or text, pull over to a safe location.”

The law

Until last year, state laws only prevented texting while driving in school zones and by drivers younger than 18 and bus drivers transporting minors.

But on Sept. 1, 2017, the Texas Legislature officially made it illegal to text while driving under House Bill 62.

That law means no texting — and no communicating with others through emails or on apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp — while driving.

Motorists can still use their phones to play music, operate a GPS, report a crime, seek emergency help and talk.

Supporters have long said they believe this law will make roads safer; critics say this is an overreach of the government into people’s lives — and hard to enforce because law enforcers have to personally see the texting while driving.

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.

The state launched a “Heads up, Texas,” campaign to encourage drivers to stay off their phone.

Enforcement

In Arlington, police say the new state law has actually made it harder for officers to stop people from using their mobile devices.

Police have written only three citations for texting while driving violations since the state law took effect, Lt. Christopher Cook said. That’s a dramatic drop compared to when Arlington had a local ordinance banning not just texting but any use of a mobile device involving the driver’s hands.

From 2012 to 2017, when Arlington had an ordinance prohibiting use of a mobile device while driving within the city limits, police wrote about 400 citations.

The old city ordinance prohibited any use of a hand-held mobile device in Arlington. But the state prohibits only texting, he said.

“An officer has to not only determine you’re using your phone, but they have to determine your intent,” Cook said. “They have to prove you were texting, because it is not illegal in Texas to pull out your phone, change the radio station, input directions in a GPS navigation app, stuff like that.”

If the state law is revisited during the upcoming legislative session, Cook said Arlington police would support strengthening it to ban all use of hand-held mobile devices while driving.

Jennifer Smith, who founded StopDistractions.Org after her mother was killed by a driver using a phone in Oklahoma, believes that Texas drivers won’t truly commit to putting down their phones while driving until the state adds teeth to the law and bans all forms of mobile phone use involving a driver’s hands.

Smith noted that after Georgia strengthened its state law to ban all use of mobile devices except for hands-free technology, the first month the new law was in effect crashes dropped by about 27 percent.

“You have got to get the phone out of drivers’ hands completely to empower law enforcement, so there is a clear interpretation of the law,” said Smith, a former Grapevine resident now living in Chicago. “People need know there are consequences.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson

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