Wear: Move to squash local phoning-while-driving law likely dead


A bill to pre-empt local cellphone laws quickly passed the Senate during the special session’s early days.

But an identical House bill, after getting a July 27 hearing before a committee, has remained in limbo.

With just a few days left in the session, stricter local laws on phone use behind the wheel should survive.

Maybe you have been distracted with other things, like summer vacation, “Game of Thrones,” the Astros’ big season or the imminent nuclear annihilation of mankind. I know I have.

So you might have lost track of that bill in the special session that aimed to annihilate (liking that word) the phoning-while-driving bans in Austin and about 40 other Texas cities. Remember back in July when the Texas Senate — well, Republicans in the Texas Senate — passed it?

You might be wondering what happened with it. You say you’re too busy installing a makeshift bomb shelter in your backyard to care? Well, let me educate you on what has happened since the bill moved to the House chamber.

Nothing. Well, almost nothing.

And what that means is that, absent another special session call by Gov. Greg Abbott, Austin’s law (which basically bans all use of a hand-held phone behind the wheel) and its kin almost certainly will remain in place.

THE BACK STORY: Abbott criticizes ‘patchwork’ of local texting laws

Now the details.

The Senate, with a majority completely on board with Abbott’s “20-for-20” pitch to pass bills pertaining to every item the governor put on the special session call, wasted little time (legislatively speaking) passing Senate Bill 15, which would pre-empt all local laws on the use of electronic devices while driving.

If that bill, or its twin in the other chamber, House Bill 171, were to become law, the only rules in place governing cellphone use for Texas drivers would be a bill passed this spring that outlaws typing, sending or reading an “electronic message.” That definition includes texts, emails and social media messages. What it won’t include, when the state law goes into effect Sept. 1, is a ban on talking on a hand-held phone.

However, local ordinances in Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and many other Texas cities (though not Houston, Dallas or Fort Worth) do make it illegal to talk with the phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other while the car is moving.

So to those who consider phone use by drivers a dangerously distracting activity — a group that includes police in Austin, San Antonio and Sugar Land (at least) — passage of SB 15 or HB 171 and a gubernatorial signature would be a setback for safety on Texas roads.

RELATED: Abbott measure could make it harder to cite drivers for texting

Anyway, SB 15 passed the Senate on July 26, the 30-day session’s ninth day. The next day, HB 171 had a hearing in the House Transportation Committee. It didn’t go well for sponsor Rep. Craig Goldman, a Fort Worth Republican. Goldman has 55 co-sponsors for his bill, more than a third of the House. But what he really needs is seven votes on the 13-member transportation panel.

Goldman is on that committee, and so are three HB 171 co-sponsors. Getting at least three other votes for a committee majority, with just a few days left in the session, has apparently proved impossible.

The Transportation Committee met again Aug. 3, and then last Tuesday, and took no vote on HB 171. No further meetings of that committee are on the schedule at this point.

The committee, by the way, on July 27 also took testimony on HB 117, which (appropriately, given the similar bill numbers) is the yin to HB 171’s yang.

It, too, would pre-empt all local laws on use of a hand-held phone while driving. But it would expand the statewide texting-while-driving ban from this spring by outlawing virtually all use of a “portable wireless communication device” behind the wheel. In other words, the bill would take the Austin-San Antonio model statewide, forcing Texans all over the state to leave the phone in the charger while they drive.

Both bills, in other words, would eliminate the “patchwork” of local phoning-while-driving bills that Abbott, Goldman and other Republicans say is confusing to drivers passing from one jurisdiction to the next. But HB 117, authored by Rep. Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio, would broaden the reach of the law in Texas, while HB 171 would constrict it.

RELATED: Relatives show toll of drivers texting as Legislature again weighs ban

“If we’re going to pre-empt city ordinances, the state law should be at least as strict,” said Austin police Sgt. Michael Barger, testifying at that July 27 hearing. “People should not be using their cellphones at all while driving. … This problem is as bad as DWI was back in the ’70s.”

Barger also said that having a law that bans only electronic messaging while driving — but not surfing the web, talking or binge-watching “House of Cards” — puts police at a disadvantage in enforcing the law. If a police officer sees someone with a phone in hand behind the wheel, under the new statewide law, the driver could argue that he or she was doing one of those permitted activities rather than reading or sending a text message.

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who supports Goldman’s bill, made the curious argument in the July 27 hearing that overriding all the stricter local laws would be a positive thing for safety because it would then put pressure on the Legislature to pass a bill like Uresti’s. He said that the local laws, in effect, give the Legislature political cover to keep the statewide prohibition more permissive. That reasoning failed to move any of the seven people who testified against HB 171.

“In that two years” before the Legislature could in theory do what Phillips suggested, “there will be others who die on the highway,” said Steve Abrams, who said his grandson was killed in 2013 in a wreck caused by texting.

No one testified for SB 171, by the way, although three people registered their support in writing with the committee. That included, committee records say, Jo Cassandra Cuevas. Cuevas, according to Texas Ethics Commission records, is registered as a lobbyist for AT&T, a provider of cellphone service.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Texas News & Politics

Workers gather at state Capitol to defend labor unions’ rights

More than a dozen people marched Saturday from the Capitol to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the University of Texas campus to defend workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. The event, called the Working People’s Day of Action, was held in conjunction with similar marches across the country Saturday, which was the 50th...
George P. Bush absent from candidate forums as rivals gun for a runoff
George P. Bush absent from candidate forums as rivals gun for a runoff

In 2014, the future belonged to George P. Bush. Elected to statewide office his first time out, out-polling even Greg Abbott, he was the scion of one of America’s great political dynasties. He was the grandson and nephew of presidents and the son of someone who, at that moment, looked like he might have been about to become president. Young and...
Advocates join effort to fix Austin police DNA lab problems
Advocates join effort to fix Austin police DNA lab problems

As lawyers and scientists continue to review hundreds of criminal cases that might have been affected by the Austin Police Department’s now-shuttered DNA lab, members of a stakeholders advisory group have started meeting to evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid mistakes in the future. The lab shut down in 2016 after a state audit found problems...
Perilous times for historically black colleges
Perilous times for historically black colleges

Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted – a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America. Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who’s a senior there now. So Smith wasn’t surprised...
UT police investigating domestic assault on campus Friday night
UT police investigating domestic assault on campus Friday night

University of Texas police are investigating an aggravated assault that occurred Friday night in an on-campus dorm, officials said in a safety alert. According to police, a UT student reported being assaulted Friday night by her boyfriend, who is also a UT student. The incident occurred in the Jester residence hall, authorities said. Police said they...
More Stories