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Lawmakers Renew Push to Ban Texting While Driving

At a briefing Tuesday, lawmakers and relatives of people killed while texting and driving renewed a push to make the practice illegal. A proposal passed during the last session but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Jeanne Brown, whose daughter Alex Brown died in a 2009 accident while texting and driving, spoke Jan. 29, 2013, in support of a bill making texting and driving illegal. Texas is one of 11 states without a state-wide ban on texting while driving, though multiple cities have passed ordinances making it illegal.

At a legislative briefing Tuesday, relatives of men and women killed in accidents caused by texting while driving sat in committee chairs at a room in the Capitol. In front of each was a framed photograph of one of the deceased.

Outside, as part of a program called It Can Wait, AT&T set up a driving simulation station, resembling a video game, that showed the dangers of trying to send a text message while driving. Participants were asked to sign a pledge to never text and drive again.

The events were designed to garner support for three bills filed in November: House Bill 63, by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and numerous other coauthors; HB 41, by state Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio; and Senate Bill 28, by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, a companion to HB 63. Craddick's and Zaffirini's bills would ban typing on a handheld device for the purpose of sending an electronic message, while Menéndez's bill seeks to make any use of a cell phone without a hands-free device illegal.

"Banning texting while driving will undoubtedly save lives," Zaffirini said in a statement.

At the briefing, lawmakers urged their colleagues to support the legislation. “It’s time for us to pass a uniform law that everyone understands in order to keep our drivers on the road safe,” said state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, adding that Craddick's bill covers everything from posting on Facebook to tweeting to sending an email, not just sending a traditional text message. “You’re here to help us today to stop these accidents.”

Jeanne Brown told the story of her 17-year-old daughter, Alex Brown, who was killed in 2009 in a rollover accident on her way to school while texting four friends. “All it takes is a split second to lose control,” Brown said. “The truck landed on top of my 110-pound daughter and crushed her.” 

Brown speaks at high schools to encourage students not to text while driving. “I just want y'all to realize that having a texting-and-driving bill does not take any of our freedoms away,” Brown said. “I still have a right to text at an appropriate time, not behind the wheel. I still have a right to drive, but must keep in mind that your safety is as important as mine.”

The relatives of people who died while texting and driving held back tears as they gave the details of their loved ones' deaths.

Bobby Greenberg, an emergency room physician from Temple, said, “People know it’s wrong; they lie to us about it.”

During the 2011 legislative session, similar bills authored by Craddick and Zaffirini were passed, only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry in June.

Perry called the bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults,” and said in his veto statement: “Current law already prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting or using a cell phone while driving. I believe there is a distinction between the overreach of House Bill 242 and the government's legitimate role in establishing laws for teenage drivers who are more easily distracted and laws providing further protection to children in school zones.” It is currently illegal to use a cell phone in a school zone.

This time, deputy press secretary Josh Havens said Perry “continues to believe that texting while driving is reckless and irresponsible” and that “the key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement.”

Zaffirini responded by saying Perry would have “blood on his hands.”

"There is conversation with his office" about the legislation, Harless said Tuesday, adding that pressure from the community may lead Perry to change his position. Already, 25 cities in Texas have local ordinances banning the practice within city limits.

Other opponents of the ban, including Barbara Graff, an Odessa City Council member who opposed a local ordinance to ban texting while driving, have said the laws would have little meaning because they would be difficult to enforce.

Though 39 other states and the District of Columbia prohibit sending text messages while driving, police officers in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Colorado have told reporters that it is nearly impossible to tell when someone is breaking the law, because it is often legal to type in a phone number or check a map on a handheld device.

Houston Senior Police Officer Paul Lassalle addressed the enforceability question at Tuesday's briefing. "We have the same ease of enforcement as you do, when you notice people are doing things that are distracting them while they're driving," he said. "The only difference is we'll be able to pull them over and give them a reminder on paper that they shouldn't do it again."

After the briefing, Lassalle added that the prospective ban faces two hurdles to enforcement. The first, he said, is that the burden of proof in court is so high that officers have to be very careful before accusing someone of texting while driving. The other is that some police officers who text and drive themselves will be hesitant to enforce the ban. "There's the hypocritical aspect of it," he said.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Transportation 83rd Legislative Session Governor's Office Judith Zaffirini Tom Craddick