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Outlook good for statewide texting-while-driving ban, key lawmakers say

Key lawmakers are optimistic about the passage of a bill that would ban texting-and-driving across Texas, despite failed attempts over the last few sessions.

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*Correction appended.

After pushing the issue for nearly a decade, key lawmakers in the Texas Legislature are optimistic that a statewide texting-while-driving ban is within reach.

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban on texting and driving. That distinction has drawn renewed attention in recent days following an accident in West Texas in which a truck driver who was texting and driving crashed into a church bus and killed 13 senior citizens.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the texting ban bill that recently passed the House, said about the accident: “It’s a tragic situation. It’s a wasted situation.”

Craddick, who has pushed for the ban for four sessions in a row, offered condolences to the victims, their families and the church in a statement last week.

“No message or e-mail is important enough to risk injury or death while driving on our Texas roadways," Craddick said.

If Texas had passed a texting-while-driving ban when Craddick first filed a bill creating one in 2011, Texas would have been the ninth state to pass such a law, he said. If House Bill 62 passes this session, it will be the 47th.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick's proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.” 

In the 2015 session, a group of conservative senators helped kill the proposal, arguing that it could lead to unreasonable searches by police, among other concerns.

This year, both Craddick and the measure's most vocal advocate in the Senate, Judith Zaffirini, are hopeful the measure will draw enough support in the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott will sign it.

There are some members in the Senate who have voted against a statewide ban in the past that are now saying they are going to vote for it, Craddick noted.

One of them is state Sen. Craig Estes, who said in March, according to KUT, “When we first started working on this, I was a ‘no,’ and then I almost had a terrible wreck.”

Other senators have changed their minds over the years as they have grown more sensitive to the prevalence of the issue and the consequences of inaction, Zaffirini said.

“The first time I carried it in 2009, nobody was interested in it but I kept on. Now more people understand it,” Zaffirini said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has also changed course on the legislation. In 2011, he said to pass a law on texting and driving is “one more nanny state intrusion on our lives.”

This session, he said in a radio interview on KRLD, that he is uncertain whether there is enough support in the Texas Senate for the ban, but suggests he backs it. "Personally, I don't think people should be taking their eye off the road," Patrick said. "I have evolved on the issue personally over the past several years. It's clear now it's a serious issue."

Under Craddick's proposal, first offenders would be charged with a misdemeanor and could be fined up to $99. Repeat offenders could pay up to $200 in fines.

Craddick pointed to research from Alva Ferdinand, an associate professor in health policy and management at Texas A&M, who has said a statewide ban could prevent 90 deaths a year. The most effective way to curb deaths related to people texting-and-driving is to make it illegal, he said, comparing the move to the law that people in cars wear seat belts.

“No one ever thought seat belts would go into effect and now it’s just standard use to buckle up. Only once it became law did most people start to buckle up,” Craddick said. 

About three dozen Texas cities already have a texting-and-driving ban in place. Cities would still be allowed to implement ordinances that are stricter than the proposed state law under the current version of the legislation.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the potential penalties in the texting-while-driving ban bill that passed the Texas House.

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Courts Criminal justice Transportation 85th Legislative Session Judith Zaffirini Tom Craddick