Texting while Driving Ban Coming to Texas

Texting while driving is about to become illegal in the Lone Star State. State Representative Tom Craddick (R-Midland) authored House Bill 62, which will ban texting while driving beginning September 1, 2017. In a statement, Craddick commented: “I am pleased that Governor Abbott signed House Bill 62 and that it will become the law. By enacting this public safety legislation, the Governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior.”

Craddick further stated that Texas has needed this kind of legislation for a long time “to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes, and we finally have it.” He added, “This [law] delivers a strong message to Texas drivers to stop texting, put down their phone, and keep their eyes on the road. Like AT&T says: It can wait.”

            According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), one in five automobile crashes involves distracted drivers. In 2016, this translated into 109,653 traffic accidents in which more than 3,000 people were seriously injured and 454 died. This figure increased three percent from 2015. The Department noted the highest number of distracted driving wrecks occurred with new and younger drivers between ages 16 to 34.

            Until recently, Texas law only prohibited cell phone use for drivers under the age of 18, drivers with learner’s permits, and bus drivers. Additionally, the state restricts all drivers from using a cell phone while driving through a school zone. According to TxDOT, more than 100 municipalities around the state have some form of a cell phone ordinance in place for drivers.

            The Lone Star State is one of the last states to enact such a ban.  Texas joins 47 other states with similar legislation that prohibits text messaging while driving. Effective September 1st 2017, House Bill 62 will make it a misdemeanor offense for a driver to use a portable wireless communication device to read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped. The first offense will be punishable by a fine between $25 and $99, and a subsequent offense will carry a fine between $100 and $200. This law does not restrict other types of cell phone activities, such as GPS for navigation, internet, or music programs.

            Exceptions to the law include:

  • using a hands-free device, including voice-operated technology;
  • reporting illegal activity or requesting emergency help;
  • reading an electronic message that the person reasonably believes concerns an emergency; or
  • relaying information to a dispatcher or digital network through a device affixed to the vehicle as part of the driver’s job.

The law will restrict the seizure or inspection of a driver’s cell phone by a law enforcement officer unless authorized by another law. Additionally, the law will prohibit the Department of Motor Vehicles from assigning points to a driver’s license for a texting-while-driving offense.

            The passage of House Bill 62 was spurred by a tragic highway crash on March 29, 2017 in San Antonio. The driver of a pickup truck admitted to checking for a text message before crashing his vehicle into a church retreat bus. The bus driver and 12 senior citizen passengers were killed. The driver also admitted to being under the influence of prescription drugs during the accident. Additionally, marijuana was found in his truck.

            The state’s lawmakers, most notably Craddick and state Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), tried to pass similar legislation in 2011, 2013, and 2015. In 2011, then-Governor Rick Perry vetoed Craddick’s HB 242. Perry said he supported measures that make Texas roads safer for everyone, but he called the bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” He also cited existing state laws on cell phone use while driving.

            Although most reasonable people would agree that texting while driving is irresponsible behavior, there are supporters and opponents of this new law, as is true for any law. According to supporters, the new law would resolve confusing differences in local laws and enact common sense restrictions that are not overly burdensome.  Those in favor of the new law blame texting while driving for needless medical costs due to increased demands on emergency services and other forms of medical care. Supporters believe these crashes impose high economic costs through higher insurance premiums and lost wages.

            Supporters cite to a 2016 study of AT&T’s wireless customers. The study estimated that the four states without complete texting-while-driving legislation have approximately a 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than the other 46 states.

Supporters also claim there has been no demonstrated outcry against unconstitutional searches sparked by the many local ordinances in Texas restricting texting while driving. Additionally, they claim these ordinances have served as a successful deterrent, neither infringing on civil rights nor overly burdening local law enforcement.

Those in favor of the ban assert the legislation would create increased regulatory certainty by establishing a uniform set of rules to replace the more than 100 individual municipality regulations that currently govern texting while driving in the state. They claim the plethora of local regulations make it unreasonably difficult for drivers to understand and obey the law. In addition, supporters claim the new law will fill the necessary gap in rural areas where no city regulations exist.

According to opponents, however, House Bill 62 will aggravate the effects of distracted driving and will be ineffective at improving public safety. Opponents of the new law argue the state should pursue policies to decrease distracted driving instead of creating an opportunity for government overreach into the lives of citizens. Opponents favor leaving the issue of distracted driving in the hands of local jurisdictions rather than the state. Opponents of House Bill 62 cite to a 2010 report from the Highway Loss Data Institute that hypothesized that such laws could cause drivers to conceal their phones in their laps, taking their attention away from the roadways and increasing accidents. In addition, researchers with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reviewed 11 other studies on texting while driving bans and concluded that the ultimate effect on accidents and fatalities is unclear. Opponents suggest that the finding could mean that texting while driving accounts for a relatively low percentage of distracted driving. Further, according to a 2010 bulletin from the Highway Loss Data Loss Institute, evidence from insurance claims and police reports over several years have provided an astounding array of ways in which drivers manage to become distracted while driving – from adjusting the radio, to eating and drinking, reading, shaving, applying make-up, or to swatting bees. Rather than implementing an ineffective governmental ban, opponents of the new law suggest that Texas legislatures should focus on including important information in driver safety courses and public messages.

Opponents of the new law view criminalization for texting and driving as being counterproductive.  They claim that creating yet another criminal offense would raise the likelihood of citizens’ interaction with law enforcement. Banning texting while driving could result in a greater number of unconstitutional searches or other civil rights violations, which could strain the resources of law enforcement and distract from more important crimes.

Although opponents understand the bill is well intentioned, they assert it will be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce because law enforcement would be hard-pressed to determine whether the driver was texting or using a phone for a lawful reason (such as for one of the exceptions listed above).