Texting-while-driving ban starts third trip through Texas Legislature

Perhaps, state Rep. Tom Craddick told a Texas House committee Thursday, the third time is the charm, especially now that Texas is among an intimate fraternity of only six states that don’t have a general statewide ban on texting while driving.

The Midland Republican and former House speaker, who saw a similar bill in 2011 make it through both chambers before being vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, pushed the legislation through the House again in 2013. That time, with Perry still talking about the bill “micro-managing adult behavior,” the measure never came up for a vote in the Senate.

Now, with another occupant in the Governor’s Mansion, Craddick’s House Bill 80 would add Texas to that list of 44 states where texting while driving is illegal. The bill would make it a misdemeanor to “read, write, or send a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped and is outside a lane of travel.” Violators could be fined up to $99 the first time, and as much as $200 for subsequent convictions.

“It’s just impossible for you to do two things like that at once,” Craddick said in his testimony to the House Transportation Committee. “This bill is about saving lives. … It can’t be that wrong, or not needed, if 44 states are doing it.”

The bill outlines a series of defenses against prosecution, including that the text was written due to an emergency or to report criminal activity. In areas outside cities such as Austin, which has a general ban on using a hand-held cellphone while driving, drivers could still make phone calls, answer emails, peruse a global positioning system map or even surf the Net.

Some committee members — despite what appeared to be their unanimous support of Craddick’s bill during Wednesday’s hearing — were concerned that, with 38 Texas cities already having bans of various stripes on cellphone use behind the wheel, drivers will be confused about what they can and cannot do with their iPhones and Androids.

But Craddick is sticking with his much narrower ban, especially given the two previous failures to get even that into Texas law.

Distracted driving, broadly defined, led to 463 deaths and 19,000 injuries in vehicle accidents in Texas last year, Craddick said. And studies of other states with and without texting-while-driving bans by the Texas A&M University Health Science Center School of Public Health showed that having such a law causes a 3 percent reduction in crash-related fatalities and an 8 percent reduction in crash-related hospitalizations, said A&M assistant professor Alva Ferdinand.

“This would mean 90 lives spared per year,” Ferdinand said. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

The committee, as has been the case at similar hearings in 2011 and 2013, heard from a series of Texans whose relatives were killed in texting-related crashes, including Jeanne Brown. Her daughter Alex, a 17-year-old high school senior in Wellman, died in November 2009 when, distracted by texting, she lost control of her truck, left the road and ended up rolling the vehicle.

“It’s been five years,” Brown said, “and she’s not coming back.”

The committee will likely pass the bill in a week, and it isn’t expected to have a difficult journey through the House. And supporters, while not calling it a certainty, are optimistic about a successful trip through the Senate.

Waiting at the end, if so, will be Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We don’t want people driving and hurting other people,” Abbott said last month after an Austin speech, according to the Houston Chronicle. “We don’t want people texting and driving, but we need to find a way to do it without too much government intrusion.”

His office, asked about the bill Wednesday, would say only that Abbott will consider any bill “with the goal of making Texas better.”

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