Texas House gives initial OK to texting-while-driving ban

The Texas House, after a several-hour debate punctuated by concerns about racial profiling, gave initial approval Wednesday to a proposed statewide ban on texting and emailing while driving.

The vote was 102-40, with the no votes mostly coming from Republicans.

The House will still need to make a final, “third reading” vote on House Bill 80, carried by Midland Republican and former House Speaker Tom Craddick, an action likely to occur Thursday. After that, the legislation will have to make its way through the Texas Senate in the session’s final nine-plus weeks and get a signature from Gov. Greg Abbott.

The governor and his staff have been coy about his position on the bill, saying only that he will consider whatever bills make it to his desk.

The bill would ban texting, emailing, tweeting and instant messaging — both typing and reading such messages — while driving a car or truck in Texas. Under an amendment overwhelmingly approved Wednesday, people could type or read messages while the vehicle is stopped in traffic. In the bill’s original version, a driver would have had to leave the travel lanes to stop and text.

The bill contains exceptions for messages during an emergency or to report a crime. An exception for law enforcement and emergency services officials was amended Wednesday to limit them to sending and reading messages only in emergencies as well. And drivers would still be able to use global positioning devices on their phones or use their phones through such hands-free methods as Bluetooth.

Craddick secured passage of a similar texting ban through both the House and Senate in 2011, only to see then-Gov. Rick Perry veto what Perry described as an attempt to “micro-manage” adult behavior. Craddick got a no-texting-while-driving bill through the House again in 2013, but it died in the Senate in light of Perry’s continued opposition.

Texas would be the 46th state to have such a statewide ban on texting while driving by adults. Texas already bans cellphone use while driving for those under 18. About 40 Texas cities prohibit messaging while driving. Several of them, including Austin, ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving.

Craddick, responding to the idea that the Class C misdemeanor — comparable to a traffic ticket — would be hard to enforce, said that studies in other states have shown that 95 percent of people stop sending and receiving messages on their phones once a ban is in place.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, carried several amendments Wednesday designed to counter the possibility — “the most frightening part of this bill,” Dutton said — that police might use the law to racially profile drivers and pull them over for simply having a phone in their hand. How, Dutton repeatedly asked, would the police know if a driver was texting or simply holding the phone?

Dutton initially sought to have a provision requiring police to have an additional reason for a traffic stop, such as someone swerving or driving erratically. When that didn’t pass, he moved to have police in counties with populations of more than 400,000 produce a report each year counting up stops under the texting law and breaking them down by race.

That amendment died on a 77-65 vote.

Dutton didn’t register a vote when the bill came up for the final second reading tally.

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