Texans — are you ready for a hands-free cell phone law? That’s now on the table

Imagine keeping your hands off your phone — completely — when you’re driving.

That’s what state Sen. Judith Zaffirini wants to see, which is why she’s proposing that Texas put in place a law to let drivers use or talk on the phone only if they do it hands free.

This would be in addition to the state’s ban against texting while driving that went into effect in 2017.

“It will save lives,” Zaffirini, D-Laredo, told the Star-Telegram in a statement. “I believe the next logical step toward reducing distracted driving in Texas and increasing compliance with the texting ban is to expand the ban to include all forms of hand-held cellphone use while driving.”

Senate Bill 43 would let Texas drivers only use their hands to turn on or off their phones. That means no more typing addresses, choosing which songs to play, dialing phone numbers or holding the phone, even to talk, when you’re behind the wheel.

If Zaffirini’s measure passes, any drivers caught using their cell phones without hands-free devices could receive a ticket and a to-be-determined fine.

This comes as Texas is more than one year into a texting while driving ban.

Texas troopers issued 6,171 warnings and 2,022 tickets to drivers found texting and driving across between Sept. 1, 2017, and Jan. 15, 2019, according to state data obtained by the Star-Telegram through public information requests.

And in Fort Worth, 101 texting and driving tickets were issued during roughly the same time frame, city records show.

Texas lawmakers have until the end of their legislative session, May 27, to pass any new bills.

Texting while driving

The law banning texting while driving still let motorists use their phones to talk, play music, operate a GPS, report a crime or seek emergency help.

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.

Under the 2017 law, anyone issued 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 up to one year in jail.

Traffic deaths dropped 4 percent, from 3,720 in 2017 to 3,567 last year, according to a report from the Insurance Council of Texas, which reviewed Texas Department of Transportation data.

Hands free

Sixteen states — as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands — prevent drivers from using hand-held cell phones when behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Zaffirini’s bill would allow drivers to talk hands-free if they have speakerphone capability, a telephone attachment or a bluetooth. They could only use their hands to “activate or deactivate a function” of a phone.

The law would still let drivers contact emergency services, if needed. And it would allow mounted phones to record or broadcast video inside or outside the vehicle, which is required in some commercial vehicles for insurance purposes and court ordered in some drunk driving cases.

“We are 100 percent behind hands-free laws. They are the only way to enforce distracted driving laws and reduce crashes based on the data we are seeing,” said Jennifer Smith, a former Grapevine resident who founded StopDistractions.Org after her mother was killed in Oklahoma by a driver using a phone.

“I spent last year working in Georgia to get their hands-free law passed and it did pass with huge vote margins,” said Smith, who now lives in Chicago. “We are now working in about 19 states trying to pass the same law and Texas is for sure one of them.”

If the measure passes, it would become law Sept. 1.

Time to ban?

Research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute indicates that drivers who use hands-free devices are less likely to get into an accident than those who use hand-held phones while driving.

“The primarily cognitive secondary task of talking on a hands-free device does not appear to have any detrimental effects,” said Tom Dingus, director of the institute who guided the study.

The National Safety Council disagrees, noting that “hands free is not risk free” and that any telephone conversation while driving is distracting.

“In order to stay safe, you need your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and your mind on driving,” a statement from the group reads.

The council notes that activity in the part of the brain that monitors moving images drops by up to one-third when a person talks or listens on a phone.

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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.