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Lawmakers Debate Texting-While-Driving Ban

Lawmakers on Tuesday took their first crack at a bill designed to ban texting while driving, including reviewing statistics suggesting that bans in other states have not reduced accidents and are difficult to enforce.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Although Texas is one of 11 states without a state-wide ban on texting and driving, cell phone use while driving is illegal for those under 18 and in school zones.

Lawmakers on Tuesday took their first crack at a bill designed to ban texting while driving, reviewing statistics suggesting that bans in other states have not reduced accidents and are difficult to enforce, and discussing ways to make the proposed law more effective if it passes in Texas.

Although numerous bills have been filed in the state Legislature to ban the practice, the one considered today was House Bill 63, filed by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and several other coauthors. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed Senate Bill 28, a companion bill. Their bills would ban typing on a handheld device to send an electronic message while behind the wheel.

At a meeting Tuesday of the House Transportation Committee, relatives of men and women killed in accidents caused by texting while driving begged lawmakers to pass the legislation.

"The point [of the ban] is to take a stand and say that texting while driving kills people and injures people," said Brooke Mabry, a former special education teacher who was rear-ended by a driver who was texting and can no longer teach due to her injuries.

State Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, noted that some studies have shown that texting bans have not reduced crashes. The Highway Loss Data Institute reported in 2010 that data from four states that had passed a ban showed "a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes."

Beaman Floyd, director of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions, called those statistics "anecdotal."

Lavender disagreed. "The statistics show that it does not reduce accidents," he said, noting that the ban might cause people to hide their texting, thereby making their driving more dangerous. He said he supports the ban despite these misgivings, but added that "this is not going to get us where we need to be."

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen, explained that the ban is a long-term investment. "I remember when we passed drinking while driving and seatbelt laws, nothing changed overnight," he said, recalling how the Texas Department of Transportation aired commercials to advertise the new laws. He said a ban is needed to address current driving habits. 

"When I see someone swerve, I no longer think, 'Hey, look at that drunk guy,'" Lucio III said. "I think, 'He's texting.'"

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, recommended amending the bill to give funding to the transportation department to develop applications for smartphones that do not allow the user to text while driving, and said he hoped an education campaign would accompany passage of the ban.

"It's not about solving the problem today or tomorrow," said state Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco. "It's about creating a deterrent."

Thirty-nine other states and the District of Columbia prohibit sending text messages while driving, but 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.

Addressing these concerns, Houston Senior Police Officer Paul Lassalle said that law enforcement officers are "confident" they can enforce the ban.

During the 2011 legislative session, similar bills authored by Craddick and Zaffirini passed, but they were vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who called the bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” Zaffirini responded by saying Perry would have “blood on his hands.”

Last month, Perry's deputy press secretary Josh Havens said the governor “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.”

At least 25 cities in Texas have local ordinances banning the practice within city limits. Already, anyone under 18 cannot use a telecommunications device while driving.

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