Texting-While-Driving Bill to Hit House Floor

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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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/17/texting-while-driving-ban-hit-house-floor/.

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