More than 30 families who have lost someone to distracted driving gathered Tuesday at the state Capitol to rally support for twin bills that would ban texting while driving in Texas.
Attendees met with state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and other lawmakers to urge passage of House Bill 80 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 25, which would enact the ban. Supporters say the ban would prevent crashes, save lives and simplify the current patchwork of city ordinances across the state banning texting while driving.
"We did not know that texting and driving would kill people,” said Jeanne Brown, holding a photo of her daughter Alex Brown, who died in a texting-related car crash in 2009. “No one told us that 5,000 people died texting the year before Alex would die.”
The legislation would create the Alex Brown Memorial Act, named for the teenager from West Texas.
The House bill, authored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and its companion legislation, filed by Zaffirini, would make texting while driving a misdemeanor across the state of Texas, punishable with a fine of up to $99 on first offense and up to $200 for additional infractions.
Critics have called such legislation a misguided attempt to control behavior.
Similar legislation that Craddick filed in 2011 passed through both chambers of the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who called it “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” In 2013, a similar bill from Craddick passed the House by a vote of 98-47 but did not make it out of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Zaffirini, who called texting while driving a “serious problem in our state,” insisted Tuesday on the Senate floor that she would continue to press legislators to pass the bill. She added that the head of the Senate Transportation Committee, Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, had already promised her that the bill would get a hearing.
"These stories are so moving, so heartwarming, so important,” Zaffirini told the attendees at the gathering. “But you need to make sure you talk to every single senator. You need to know exactly what we are talking about and be able to articulate the dangers of distracted driving."
State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who was at the event, said he was optimistic that both chambers would approve the legislation but that its fate largely rested with the governor.
Greg Abbott indicated last year while running for governor that he did not support a statewide ban, saying that it would "micromanage adult driving behavior." He has expressed support for existing laws that ban cellphone use by young drivers and in school zones, as well as an interest in educational campaigns warning against the risks of texting while driving.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has not come down as firmly against a texting ban. In 2011, as a state senator, he said a statewide texting ban was a “nanny state intrusion on our lives.” But last year while running for lieutenant governor, Patrick told the Amarillo Globe-News: “It is a privilege to drive a car, not a right. I don’t think anyone has the right to go down the road and take their eyes off the road and look down at their phone and type a message to somebody."
Thirteen states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones, and 37 states — including Texas — have an outright ban on phone use by novice or teen drivers. But Texas is not among the 44 states that ban text messaging while driving. Several major Texas cities, however, have enacted ordinances banning the practice.
According to Zaffirini, there were more than 94,000 distraction-related traffic crashes in Texas in 2013 that resulted in more than 18,000 serious injuries and 459 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than nine people are killed in the U.S. every day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.
Don Egdorf, the traffic safety liaison with Houston Police Department, said those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
"These are big numbers, but they are underreported," he told the group of families, adding "I would guess that the actual number [of deaths] is in the thousands."