House Passes Bill That Makes Texting While Driving a Crime
UPDATED: A bill that would make texting while driving a crime passed the House on Wednesday after a lengthy debate. The measure now heads to the Senate.
Updated, 3:05 p.m.:
House Bill 63, which would make texting while driving a statewide criminal offense, passed the House by a 98-47 vote Wednesday, narrowly surviving multiple attempts to substantially weaken its provisions.
The bill, authored by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, would make it a misdemeanor to type on a handheld device to send an electronic message while behind the wheel. HB 63 would create a fine of up to $100 for first-time charges, and $200 for repeat offenses.
The bill now heads to the Senate. Similar measures have been vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, and a two-thirds vote in each chamber would be required to override a potential veto of the current bill.
Craddick, who has introduced similar bills in the past, argued that his bill was a critically important safety measure, and he began his opening remarks by expressing regret over his past opposition to the state’s seat belt law.
“When the seat belt bill passed years ago, I voted against it,” he said. “I’m very sorry I did that. When I get in my car with my grandchildren now, the first thing they say is ‘buckle up.’”
Craddick also argued that the case for banning texting while driving was even stronger than the case for a mandatory seat belt law, which he said protects “a person from themselves.”
“This is to protect me from your driving," he said. "There are people in the gallery today who have lost loved ones because of texting.” He added, “They’re saying 90 percent of the people in the state wear seat belts. And at the time we passed the seat belt law, it was like 27 percent.”
But the bill faced substantial resistance. Early on, supporters of the measure successfully defended the bill against two amendments that would prevent police officers from pulling over drivers if texting was the primary, or only, offense and the driver in question was obeying all other traffic laws.
The first was offered by Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who argued that the bill unnecessarily restricted the freedoms of Texans.
“While I am supportive of this bill, it’s very important that liberty not be sacrificed in the process,” he said. “I’m cognizant that [the bill] opens things up to a lot of subjection. And that could become an issue.”
That amendment was ultimately tabled by an 84-60 vote, but a similar amendment offered by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, received more support. Dutton argued that a ban on texting could be applied unequally across the state – and could provide an easy pretext for police officers to pull over drivers.
“I’m a little concerned that this will lead to people of color being stopped because an officer made an allegation that they were texting,” he said. “And there would be no basis with which to prove that.”
That amendment was initially tabled by a vote of 74-68.
Supporters of the measure argued vociferously against Perry’s and Dutton's amendments. Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, ridiculed the legal standard by applying it to other offenses.
“Let’s make an analogy,” she said. "If I’m over twice the legal limit, driving while intoxicated, and I’m not swerving in traffic, am I not a danger to others?”
Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, was harsher in his criticism.
“This really guts the bill,” he said of Dutton's amendment. “The amendment is a joke. It says go ahead and text and drive.”
But an hour after his initial amendment failed, Dutton returned with an amendment almost identical to his previous one. Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, who had voted earlier to table Dutton’s amendment, had left the House floor, meaning that Dutton only needed three converts to change the outcome.
Supporters of the the original bill raised parliamentary objections about the effort, but couldn’t prevent the new amendment from coming to the floor. Amid shouts and cheers, a motion to table the amendment failed, 70-74, provoking renewed, extended debate about the merits of the amendment.
Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, reiterated that Dutton’s measure would prevent police officers from stopping drivers who have already committed an offense. But Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, presented the amendment as a crucial defense of Texans’ civil liberties.
“This amendment prevents police from going on a fishing expedition,” he said.
But the improbable comeback of Dutton’s measure ended with a tied vote, 72-72, killing the amendment.
Successful amendments to the bill included a measure that would prohibit police officers from taking a cellphone without the permission of a suspected texting driver, and one requiring a search warrant before demanding a cell service provider turns over cell records to law enforcement.
The bill would pre-empt local ordinances that have stricter prohibitions on cellphone use while driving, including those that prohibit all cellphone use, like Lubbock and Amarillo. Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, amended the bill to exempt the city of El Paso, which also has a total cellphone ban, from that pre-emption.
A bill that would make sending text messages while driving a crime — a measure that Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed in the past — is scheduled to be heard Wednesday on the House floor.
While some lawmakers and family members of crash victims have argued that such a ban would help save lives, other lawmakers point to studies that indicate bans in other states have not reduced crashes and are difficult to enforce. Perry has called such legislation “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” But this time there may be enough support among legislators to override a potential veto.
Many bills were filed this session to crack down on texting while driving, but the furthest along is House Bill 63, filed by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, which along with Senate Bill 28, by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would make it a misdemeanor to type on a handheld device to send an electronic message while behind the wheel. HB 63 would create a fine of up to $100 for first-time charges, and $200 for repeat offenses.
There are exceptions in the bill for drivers who say they were simply looking up a number or using a cellphone to navigate with GPS technology.
There has been increasing publicity surrounding the problem of "distracted driving" in general and texting while driving in particular. On April 8, the Texas Department of Transportation launched a campaign urging drivers, via a series of public service announcements, to avoid “distracted driving.”
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that “almost half of all Texas drivers in 2012 admit to regularly or sometimes talking on the cell phone while driving,” but that “84.9 percent of Texas drivers think driving while talking on a cellphone is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to their personal safety.” Neither group specifically supported the statewide ban.
At hearings and news conferences on the bill, family members of people killed in car accidents caused by texting while driving have urged lawmakers to give law enforcement tools to stop the practice. HB 63 is also known as the Alex Brown Memorial Act, named after a girl who died in a rollover accident on her way to school. She had been sending text messages to several friends. “All it takes is a split second to lose control,” her mother, Jeanne Brown, told lawmakers in January.
In vetoing similar legislation in 2011, Perry said that it was already illegal to use a cellphone in a school zone and that a statewide ban would be an “overreach.”
“We'll reserve all of our decisions on a bill until it comes to us in its final form,” Perry spokesman Josh Havens said of the current proposal. He said the governor “believes that while texting while driving is not safe, the way to convince people not to do it is education, not government micromanagement.”
The Legislature, however, can override a veto with a two-thirds vote from each chamber. Legislators cannot override a governor's veto after the session ends, but the governor has three weeks after the end of a session in which he can still veto bills. The House bill currently has more than 20 authors and coauthors.
Opponents of the bill have also said it would be difficult to enforce. There are similar bands in 39 other states and the District of Columbia, and police officers in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Colorado have said it is difficult to tell the difference between sending text messages and legal uses of a cellphone, like looking up a number.
Experts are divided on the success of current bans. At a hearing on the bill last month, state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, pointed to a 2010 report by the Highway Loss Data Institute in which 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." He mentioned the possibility that drivers hold their phones lower when they are trying to avoid detection by police, and that this is more dangerous.
"The statistics show that [a ban] does not reduce accidents," Lavender said. “This is not going to get us where we need to be."
More than 25 cities in Texas have enacted their own bans on texting while driving, and San Antonio has reported issuing 1,400 citations since their ban was introduced in 2011.
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