There is no doubt that texting while driving is dangerous, but Texas remains one of only four states without a law banning the practice — and changing that scenario will be an uphill battle when the Legislature returns in January.
The Texas Senate, where anti-texting bills were defeated in 2013 and 2015, is poised to remain hostile territory in the 2017 session. Much of the opposition has solidified around the Legislature’s most conservative Republicans, who are leery of broadening police powers and see anti-texting laws as furthering an intrusive, “nanny state” government.
State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, vowed to renew last session’s successful effort to block a texting ban from getting a vote on the Senate floor.
“We currently have a number of laws on the books for hazardous driving which provide sufficient cause for law enforcement to stop a motorist,” she said, adding that efforts should focus on educating drivers “rather than embrace the unintended, and unwanted, consequences of criminalizing the use of a device.”
Advocates promise an equally focused effort to prohibit drivers from sending and receiving text messages, citing reports that claim the practice is twice as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 — the legal limit for driving while intoxicated.
“We will continue to fight for this issue because, quite honestly, we’re losing too many fellow citizens needlessly to distracted driving,” state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said at a recent Austin policy summit, sponsored by AAA Texas, meant to build support for laws to combat driver distractions, including text messaging.
On the surface, a texting ban is the type of bill that sails through the Legislature.
The proposed law has passionate supporters who repeatedly travel to the Capitol to provide heart-wrenching testimony about spouses, siblings and children lost to a driver distracted by a text message, phone call or other cellphone use. It’s the kind of real-life narrative that converts politicians into supporters, and several legislators have credited victims’ families with changing their minds on the issue.
A texting ban also has widespread support from powerful allies, including law enforcement groups, insurance companies, major cellphone corporations, the Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association.
Emerging studies indicate that such laws save lives and reduce crashes, and polls show general public support for limiting the use of cellphones and other hand-held devices by drivers.
Even so, the closest Texas came to enacting a texting ban was in 2011, when it was amended onto a popular bill and approved with minimal dissent — only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who called the proposed law “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”
In 2013, a bill imposing a fine of up to $100 for reading, writing or sending a text while driving — though not when the vehicle was stopped — passed the House, 97-45, but didn’t get a vote in a Senate committee.
A 2015 version also easily passed the House and got a boost when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who now supports a texting ban after voting against it as a senator in 2011 — moved the bill into a new committee, where it was approved. However, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, needed support from 19 senators to get a Senate vote but could line up only 18: all 11 Democrats and seven Republicans.
It won’t get easier in 2017. Zaffirini lost one Republican supporter with the retirement of Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who is running for Eltife’s seat and has no Democratic opponent, voted against texting bans in 2013 and 2015.
Another soon-to-be senator also voted against a texting ban in 2015 — state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, who has no Republican opponent in his bid to replace Sen. Rodney Ellis, a texting-ban supporter who will soon become a Harris County commissioner.
Hughes and Miles didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Do texting laws work?
The difficult landscape won’t deter Zaffirini and state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who have said that passing a texting ban remains a priority.
Supporters also enter the 2017 legislative session believing they have better answers to a common question: Do anti-texting laws work?
AT&T Corp., for example, says a study of its cellphone network found motorists in Texas, Arizona, Montana and Missouri — the four states without anti-texting laws — were 17 percent more likely to send a text while driving than residents of the other 46 states.
Research by Alva Ferdinand, a Texas A&M University assistant professor of health policy and management, found states with a texting ban had a 3 percent reduction in fatalities and a 7 percent reduction in accidents that required hospitalization.
“Should a ban go into effect in Texas, we would expect to see 90 lives saved per year,” she said.
Two points stood out from the studies, Ferdinand said:
• The type of ban mattered. Safety improved if laws allowed police to pull over drivers seen using a hand-held device, but anti-texting laws that require officers to ticket only motorists pulled over for other offenses made things worse — encouraging such dangerous behavior as using phones hidden in laps, which takes eyes off the road for longer periods, Ferdinand said.
“States where you have to be caught doing something else first is where you are seeing some slight increases in fatalities,” she said.
• Age matters. Texting bans reduce fatal and injury accidents for 15- to 21-year-olds, but the greatest safety improvements came for drivers aged 22 to 64 when laws go further by banning the use of any hand-held electronic device behind the wheel.
“For the longest time, we were blaming the young drivers, but (older drivers), the more experienced drivers, feel they have what it takes to compensate for the fact that they are distracted,” Ferdinand said.
Currently, Texas law prohibits drivers under age 18 from texting behind the wheel, and all drivers are banned from texting or using cellphones in school zones.
Cities fill legal void
At least 95 Texas cities have passed ordinances outlawing a range of distracting behaviors — from simple bans on texting to prohibitions on any hand-held electronic device while driving — including Austin, Bee Cave, Buda, Kyle, Lakeway, Liberty Hill, Lockhart, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Sunset Valley, West Lake Hills and Wimberley, according to AAA Texas.
The hodgepodge of laws can be confusing for drivers, but officials in cities such as Austin want to ensure that their more comprehensive bans aren’t superseded by state law — a major reason why the proposed 2015 bill specified that a statewide texting ban wouldn’t pre-empt stricter city ordinances.
Austin has banned the use of electronic devices while driving since 2015 after discovering that a previous texting-only ban was unenforceable because motorists could say they were checking GPS, looking up a number or performing any other nontexting action.
Austin police issued 5,122 tickets in 2015 and almost 3,500 in the first seven months of this year. There is no data yet showing the impact of the Austin ordinance, but Bianca Bentzin, chief of the city’s prosecution division, believes it has been effective.
“People tell us that we don’t see many second offenses,” Bentzin told the AAA Texas distracted-driving summit on Aug. 10. “This is usually habitual behavior. We’re not hearing a lot of, ‘This is terrible, I can’t believe this law exists.’ … People are agreeing that this is needed.”
How common is texting and driving?
Texas A&M University’s Center for Transportation Safety sent observers to 190 intersections across the state in February and March 2015. Of almost 32,000 drivers observed:
• 5 percent were talking on a phone
• 3.5 percent were texting
The numbers were down slightly from 2014, when 5.9 percent of drivers were on phones and 3.7 percent were texting.
American-Statesman Capitol reporter Chuck Lindell has covered legal affairs for the past decade. He also covers the Texas Senate.