Herman: Is the new texting ban the best Texas can do?

Tucked into Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement about the upcoming special legislative session was the revelation that he’d signed into law the bill banning texting while driving.

In general, I’m good with banning dumb and dangerous stuff.

More from Abbott: “But I was not satisfied with this law as it was written. … We’ve got to pre-empt all local ordinances that regulate mobile devices in vehicles. … We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

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Sounds logical, right? Maybe. Ditto for the new statewide texting while driving ban.

What Abbott wants — a state override of local ordinances on behind-the-wheel cellphone use — would make Austin streets less safe. Austin now bans pretty much all forms of hand-held cellphone use for any purpose (and there are as many purposes as there are apps) while driving.

About 90 Texas cities have some form of ban. The new state law, effective Sept. 1, bans only “electronic messages” and allows lots of other uses, including hands-on phone calls, surfing the web and doing your income taxes.

So our local ordinance does more to promote safety than the state law, with which Abbott wants to override it. I get the potential problem of patchwork. But why not a state law more like our local ordinance? Seems wiser than a state law that erases our stronger local ordinance.

You’ve got to figure that millions (or more) of texts are sent by drivers every day. Shockingly few of those texts ever cause a problem. But when they do, they can kill.

And that leads to another thing about texting while driving: It’s amazingly stupid, as well as unnecessary. Ditto for other hand-held cellphone use while driving.

People do dumb and dangerous stuff – like texting while driving – because they’ve successfully done it zillions of times without a problem. That’s the problem. I’d hope one close call would cure anyone of texting while driving, even if it’s legal, which it shouldn’t be.

Abbott’s signing of House Bill 62, the anti-texting bill, was praised by the folks whose profit margin is dinged by wrecks caused by texting drivers.

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“Insurers believe this bill will save lives on Texas roads,” said Joe Woods, vice president of state government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers of America. “By making texting while driving a primary offense, law enforcement can pull over drivers who are seen using their devices while driving.”

Sure enough, and that might be a problem. Some of what those drivers are doing — using a navigation app, navigating a music app — remains legal. The law calls that a “defense to prosecution,” which means somebody seen doing one of the legal uses probably would have to show up somewhere — perhaps a courthouse — to prove legal use of the device.

HB 62 says, “An operator commits an offense if the operator uses a portable wireless communication device to read, write or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped. To be prosecuted, the behavior must be committed in the presence of or within the view of a peace officer or established by other evidence.”

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, made a defensible, if unsuccessful, case for changing that last “or” to an “and.”

“My concern with this bill, members, is it’s got a lot of holes in it, and enforcement, I think, is an issue,” Taylor told colleagues as the bill was headed for Senate approval in May. “From what I’ve been told, it exempts things like using your phone for GPS, for music apps and for traffic apps.

“And so we have a real problem with people being pulled over for potentially doing things that are perfectly legal under this law,” he said.

Taylor did some Senate floor show-and-tell, tapping on his cellphone and challenging colleagues to guess what he was doing.

“Am I texting or right now am I actually in Waze looking for the quickest way out of here?” he asked, then moving on to what he called a “search for the greatest hits of the ’60s.”

“And did I not mention that I could actually read the newspaper on my wireless device and under this law, this proposed law, it’s perfectly legal?” Taylor said.

Generally, I’m in favor of newspaper readership. But in this case there ought to be a law against it.

And, in a counterintuitive argument, Taylor said a cellphone in a driver’s hand can promote safety, such as using GPS instead of struggling to read street signs at night.

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Taylor unsuccessfully pushed to change “or” to “and” so that to have a violation of the new law a cop would have to see illegal texting and there’d have to be other evidence of a violation.

“This is a very emotional issue,” he said, “and I understand that. I know that people have died texting.”

And people have killed other people while texting.

Back to Taylor: “I am against that. But at the same time there are reasonable uses of a device while you’re driving that are reasonable and safe.”

He offered this example: “The fact that I pull up my phone and put a ‘y’ for yes and (hit) send and I do it in a fraction of a second I don’t think makes me any less safe than someone eating a hamburger or reading a novel while they drive down the road. I’m much safer than those people.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said Taylor’s proposed change would make the law unenforceable. His amendment was voted down 19-12 and the bill was approved 23-8, with Taylor and seven other Republicans saying nay.

We need a law regulating cellphone use, for any purpose, while driving. The question is whether this is the right law. Or — and maybe this is the more proper question: Is this just the best law we could get? And shouldn’t a city, maybe one that sees itself as somewhat weird, be allowed to have what it thinks is the best law?

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