Senate approves long-sought ban on texting while driving

5:25 p.m Friday, May 19, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Senators from both parties congratulate Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini on Friday after the passage of House Bill 62, which bans texting while driving. A final vote is needed in the House before it goes to the governor’s desk.

A statewide texting-while-driving ban, after running into legislative and gubernatorial roadblocks in the past four legislative sessions, cleared the Texas Senate on Friday and appears to be on the way to passage.

House Bill 62, carried in the Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved 23-8 on both second and third readings. All 11 Democrats and 12 of the chamber’s 20 Republicans voted for the statewide ban on reading, writing or sending electronic messages from a hand-held phone while piloting a moving vehicle.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion,” Zaffirini said just before asking for a final Senate vote on the bill. Zaffirini has carried bills that would ban texting while driving since the 2009 legislative session. She was first motivated to do it, Zaffirini later told the American-Statesman, after twice being a passenger in cars when young staff members were texting and driving.

“I freaked out, and said, ‘We have to do something,’” she said.

Texting would still be allowed in emergencies. Drivers can also use a hand-held phone to access global positioning systems and, in an amendment Zaffirini added to obtain another senator’s vote, to access music apps.

Much of the Senate gathered around Zaffirini after the vote to give her handshakes and hugs. Minutes later, former House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who has been her partner since 2011 in trying to pass a texting ban and who sponsored the bill in the House, came to the Senate to offer his congratulations as well.

Craddick said later that Gov. Greg Abbott, in two appearances this year in Midland, had said “he was for the bill and would sign it.” The governor’s office didn’t comment on the bill Friday afternoon.

The statewide ban, which doesn’t address speaking on a hand-held phone, doesn’t supersede stricter local ordinances, such as the one in Austin where almost all use of a hand-held phone by someone driving a moving vehicle is prohibited. However, if the bill is signed, practices that are against both local and state law, such as typing a text or email, would be subject to only the state citation.

The passage occurred after the 19-12 defeat of an amendment, carried by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, that Zaffirini said would have “gutted the bill” and caused its defeat when it returns to the House for a final vote. That amendment would have required that a texting violation be witnessed by a police officer and that there be other corroborating evidence, such as an admission by the driver or weaving.

The bill as passed requires just one of those pieces of evidence.

Taylor, in arguing for his amendment, made what have become familiar arguments about the difficulty of enforcing the bill and the bill’s lack of a prohibition on other driver distractions such as “eating a hamburger” or reaching into the back seat.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, acknowledged that some people will continue to text even with such a law. But, she said, others will stop doing it and lives will be saved.

“The importance of this legislation has always been to act as a deterrent,” Huffman said. “When something is against the law, most people will hesitate to do it. And if this saves the life of one teenager … then we’ve accomplished what we need to accomplish.”

Texting by drivers under age 18, and by anyone in an active school zone, is already against state law. The Legislature in 2011 passed a texting ban, carried by Zaffirini and Craddick, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who said in his veto message the bill attempted to micromanage adult behavior. Texting bills in 2013 and 2015 never made to the governor’s desk.

The version approved Friday will need final approval by the House, which Craddick characterized as virtually certain, before heading to the governor’s desk. The House in March approved a similar version of HB 62 on a 114-32 vote.

A texting-while-driving citation, under HB 62, would carry a fine of $25 to $99 for a first offense and $100 to $200 for subsequent offenses. And the bill calls for enhanced penalties beyond that if texting leads to an accident causing someone’s death or serious injury.

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