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Texting While Driving Ban Gets Early OK In House

This is no LOL matter: Texting while driving could soon be prohibited statewide. But using other applications on a smart phone, like GPS or Facebook, would not be banned -- as long as you're reading, not typing.

This is no LOL matter: Texting while driving could soon be prohibited statewide. The House preliminarily passed a bill today that singles out "text-based communication" -- texting, instant messaging or e-mailing -- while driving as a punishable traffic offense. Using other applications, like GPS, Google or Facebook, on a smart phone would not be banned.

"Why is this being singled out when there are a multitude of things that distract us while driving?" asked Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who voted against the bill. "I'm concerned about limiting freedom and making people criminals for just reading an electronic message."

But Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the bill, told lawmakers the chances of someone having an accident while texting is 20 times that of a drunk driver. The majority of the House, 124 members, voted in favor of the bill; 16 members voted against it.

Current Texas law already prohibits drivers from using a mobile device in any capacity while driving in a school zone. Nor can teenage drivers under 18 text and drive. (Making an emergency call is an exception for both laws.) According to Craddick, texting is "just one more piece of the puzzle" that needs to be prohibited to keep roads safe.

Supporters say it's a common sense safety measure that would decrease traffic deaths, accidents and congestion. They also say fines on texting while driving would raise revenue for the state. The amount of the fine will be left up to individual communities, and could be anything from $1 to $200.

An amendment by Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, to strike the word "read" from the bill was adopted, meaning only typing while driving would be prohibited. "It's very dangerous, but I hate for myself to be considered a criminal for so much as looking down at my phone," Taylor said.

Laughter over Taylor's texting habits ceased when Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, took the podium and brought attention to the actual deaths occurring in Texas because of texting. "I spoke to a lady recently who got a call in the middle of the night. She lost her daughter in a wreck," he said. "When they got her phone and looked at it, at the moment of impact, she was texting."

Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, failed in his attempt to table the amendment. He said reading while driving is also dangerous and it would be an "administrative nightmare" for officers to prove a driver was typing, not reading, on a cell phone. He compared Taylor's argument about his ability to read and drive to his "knucklehead friends" who say they can drive after having a few drinks. "Speaking on the whole, it causes a major public safety concern," he said.

Lucio voted for the bill, but he wasn't the only legislator who raised concerns on how to enforce a texting ban.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who voted against the bill, questioned how the state would enforce the law.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who co-authored the bill, responded that the offense is an observed behavior, and officers can be trained on how to enforce the law. "I will admit to you, it's very subjective. They have to see it," he said. But Martinez Fischer said training programs like the one the city of San Antonio uses are effective. San Antonio, which already has a ban, has issued 41 citations and 5 warnings for the offense.

Thirty states have similar laws already on the books, and so do numerous cities and municipalities in Texas. Craddick said a statewide prohibition will be easier to enforce than inconsistent local laws. "The key out there is the protection of the people that are driving around," he said.

The two companion bills in the Senate haven't moved far in committee -- one was left pending in early March, and the other has been quiet since it was referred to committee in January.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/eKs7yw.

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