- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
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.
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.
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.
“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.