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


Highlights

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

JUST IN: Man in his 20s found dead near airport after apparent hit-and-run, Austin police say
JUST IN: Man in his 20s found dead near airport after apparent hit-and-run, Austin police say

A man was found dead after an apparent hit-and-run crash in South Austin near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Wednesday morning, authorities said.  A passerby called Austin police shortly after 7 a.m. to report a dead person on the side of the road in the 3200 block of U.S. 183 South, on the west side of the airport, authorities said...
FORECAST: Afternoon rain possible as heat nears 100; Gulf storm system heading for Texas
FORECAST: Afternoon rain possible as heat nears 100; Gulf storm system heading for Texas

Wednesday forecast for Austin: The Austin area could see some scattered showers in the afternoon as temperatures could hit 100 for the 42nd time this year. The outlook for Wednesday calls mostly sunny skies with a 30 percent chance of rain, mainly after 2 p.m. High humidity will continue to intensify summer temperatures, sending heat index readings...
NORTHEAST AUSTIN: 2 injured in school bus crash on U.S. 290 service road
NORTHEAST AUSTIN: 2 injured in school bus crash on U.S. 290 service road

A pickup truck apparently ran a red light before hitting a school bus carrying two students in Northeast Austin on Wednesday morning, an Austin school district spokesperson said. Austin-Travis County EMS medics took the drivers of the bus and the pickup truck to St. David’s Medical Center in Central Austin with injuries that were...
How Powerball manipulated the odds to make another massive jackpot
How Powerball manipulated the odds to make another massive jackpot

At $700 million, Wednesday night's Powerball prize is the second-largest lottery jackpot in its history, and the math is working out in favor of lotto commissions. Two years ago, your chances of becoming an instant millionaire were 1 in roughly 175 million. Now, the odds are 1 in roughly 292 million. Tweaks to the game in October 2015 increased the...
DOWNTOWN GARAGE SUED: Woman files lawsuit after car’s 7-story fall last month 
DOWNTOWN GARAGE SUED: Woman files lawsuit after car’s 7-story fall last month 

The woman whose car plummeted from the seventh floor of a downtown parking garage last month has sued the garage’s owner and its management, alleging they were negligent by not upgrading a cable barrier system that failed to keep the car from going over the edge of the building. Cedar Park resident Christi Bowmer, 49, is asking for more than...
More Stories