- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
And now an anecdote from my one-man focus group: me.
I was texting in my car last week and … hey, calm down, I was stopped at a traffic light! Perfectly legal. Where was I?
Anyway, the light changed and it is possible that I typed the last word, and maybe punctuation, while I was drifting forward. Perhaps not. There were no witnesses. But I can confirm that I quickly put the phone down and drove ahead.
And at that moment, I thought to myself: Huh. Now that the Legislature changed the law, I guess I could just pick up the phone and make a call rather than using my car’s wireless feature. Then, about five seconds later, I remembered that is not the case at all. The Lege backed away from doing that this summer. Hand-held phone use while driving is still against Austin law.
That’s the focus group part. I figure that if even I can get momentarily confused — someone paid to follow and think about this stuff — then most Central Texans probably are walking around unsure where the phoning-while-driving law stands. So let me break it down for you:
Don’t do it!
OK, enough hectoring — and exclamation marks. Let’s talk about the law. Or, rather, laws, state and local.
Until Sept. 1, if you were driving in most of Texas — all unincorporated county areas and cities with no ordinance covering the subject, such as Dallas and Fort Worth and Houston — you could talk or text or do any damn fool electronic thing while driving. That changed Sept. 1 because the Legislature passed, and Gov. Greg Abbott signed, House Bill 62.
So now, anywhere in the state, it is illegal to “read, write, or send” electronic messages while driving. There are exceptions for emergencies, and drivers can text if the vehicle is stopped.
That new law, which carries a fine of up to $99 for a first offense, defines an electronic message as “data that is read from or entered into a wireless communication device for the purpose of communicating with another person.” That covers texting, first of all, but also email and social media. It would not appear, however, to cover web surfing. And, for sure, talking on a hand-held phone remains legal in those vast areas of Texas.
But not in Austin. And, in Central Texas, drivers also need to put down their phones in Bee Cave, Buda, Kyle, Lakeway, Liberty Hill, San Marcos, Sunset Valley, West Lake Hills and Wimberley.
Those municipalities have much broader local ordinances that ban all use of a hand-held device by the driver of a moving car. In other words, leave the phone in your pocket or purse while the car is in motion and use the Bluetooth, or face fines that vary from place to place.
Worth noting: New Braunfels and San Antonio also have the broader bans on using a phone while driving. Which means that when you’re driving between the Capitol and the Alamo, use of a hand-held phone is illegal through most of that stretch. Curiously, the town of Selma has only a texting ban, which might be the only recorded instance of that notorious city missing out on a revenue opportunity.
Now, a couple of other elements worth knowing: It is illegal everywhere in the state for a driver in a moving car to use a hand-held phone in an active school crossing zone. Even in Selma. Or Round Rock or Cedar Park or anywhere else, for that matter. The Legislature passed that law several years ago.
And it also is against state law for a licensed driver under 18 (in other words, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds and those with a learner’s permit) to use a phone while driving everywhere in Texas.
Just to give some credence to Abbott and others who have decried a “patchwork” of phoning-while-driving law, yes, all that is pretty complicated. To try to pull it all together: If the car is moving and you’re the driver, no texting or emailing anywhere in Texas with a hand-held phone. If you’re a new driver or in an active school zone, no phone use at all. And if you’re in Austin or any of about 45 towns and cities around the state, no phone use at all (unless you’re using a hands-free Bluetooth system).
What made all of this just a little more foggy is that some legislators, with Abbott’s support, attempted in the special session this summer to obliterate those local laws. The Senate passed the bill. But the idea died in a House committee, like a number of other special session items that had quickly moved through the upper chamber.
The Lege will be back in just over a year, of course, and there’s a good chance, based on how things are going politically, that Abbott will still be governor and that the House might not be bulwark on this issue that it was this summer. The underlying policy question: Which is better, a confusing system that might save some lives and injuries, or a unitary law that will mean fewer expensive citations for people talking on their phones in towns where that is against the law?
We’ll have to see how the next Legislature weighs those competing values.
In the meantime, send that text at the stoplight or when you get to your destination. And forgo the punctuation.