Abbott proposal would nullify city rules on distracted driving

Texas recently became the 47th state to pass a statewide texting-while-driving ban. The governor's proposal to pre-empt local ordinances on drivers' mobile phone use could weaken stricter city ordinances that have been in place for years. 

A woman checks her phone while driving in Austin. A statewide texting-while-driving ban goes into effect Sept. 1, 2017.

Tim Park for The Texas Tribune

Last month, Texas became the 47th state to pass a statewide texting-while-driving ban. Now, with a special legislative session approaching, Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing for legislation that could roll back stricter mobile phone laws already in place in more than three dozen Texas cities.

Complaining of a “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” Abbott called last week for a measure that would pre-empt local ordinances that go beyond the statewide texting ban.

The ban, signed into law last week and set to take effect Sept. 1, pre-empts only local regulations relating to a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” The broader pre-emption Abbott favors would block local governments from “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles,” effectively nullifying tougher cellphone regulations in about 40 Texas cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — where drivers are required to use hands-free devices for phone calls.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the texting-while-driving measure, said he would oppose such pre-emption both because it could weaken mobile usage laws and because he believes the issue should be left to local governments.

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“When it comes to driver use of cellular devices, I think the cities and the locals ought to have the right to do what they want to do,” Craddick said.

Police departments in several cities that currently regulate all handheld cellphone use emphasized that hands-free ordinances play an important role in public safety.

“Holding your phone in your hand is still some kind of distraction,” Corpus Christi Senior Officer Travis Pace said. 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the law’s Senate sponsor, said she will file a proposal during the special session that would create a statewide hands-free law — a measure that would accomplish the governor’s goal of uniform statewide legislation while strengthening restrictions on mobile phone usage behind the wheel across the state. She filed a similar measure, Senate Bill 67, during the regular session, but it never got a hearing.

“With the governor’s leadership and support, perhaps we can pass a better bill that sets a statewide standard,” Zaffirini said.

More than a dozen states already ban handheld cellphone use.

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Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, proposed an amendment to the texting-while-driving measure that would have established the broad pre-emption that Abbott favors. The amendment failed, but Rinaldi said he is considering a similar proposal next month. 

"The pre-emption ensures that we have one uniform law and that everybody knows what it is," Rinaldi said. He added that the more stringent regulations currently in place in some cities do not necessarily ensure greater public safety. 

Craddick said it is difficult to predict how a pre-emption proposal might fare in the special session, but he recalled that many legislators seemed “adamant” during the regular session about letting cities regulate the issue.

Abbott’s call for the mobile phone pre-emption is one on a slate of local control issues he has put on the agenda for next month’s special session. The governor has also taken aim at issues such as spending, trees on private land and construction project rules and permitting.