Tom Craddick

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

The House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a statewide ban on texting while driving.

HB 80 was approved with a 102–40 vote. The bill would ban text-based communication while driving in the state. If the ban passes, Texas would be the joining 45 other states that have already implemented some form of a texting ban.

“I think that we need a flat policy across the state that tells where we are,” Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) said in an interview with The Daily Texan. “A lot of people who go to different towns don’t know what the regulations are. If you have one bill that regulates across the state, people will know what the law is and what to abide by.”

Exceptions to the bill include typing to make a phone call, using GPS systems and replying to emergency texts, among other situations.

“You’ve got to be realistic and there are certain situations, like emergency situations, where you’ve got to give people the flexibility,” Craddick said.

At the bill’s second reading, Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he is concerned about how a statewide texting ban would be enforced. He said he thinks officers would have a difficult time identifying when a person is texting on their phone rather than holding it or performing another action, such as making a call.

Dutton said the bill creates potential for probable cause and filed an amendment that would prevent officers from pulling over a person solely based on the belief that the individual is texting. The amendment ultimately failed in a 73–66 vote.

“Just because I hold my cell phone in my hand, doesn’t suggest that I am texting,” Craddick said.

In total, six amendments out of 14 were passed. The amendments passed included increased signage, including state entrance signs, highway rest stops and state highway maps, as well as the ability to text when stopped.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, about 40 cities have banned texting while driving in some form, with Austin being the first in 2009. In January 2015, Austin implemented a hands-free ordinance that prohibits the use of any handheld device while driving.

Austin Police Department Lt. Robert Richman said he thinks the texting ban could be implemented statewide and increase driver safety, but the state could also look into adopting a hands-free ordinance. He said APD experienced challenges with the texting ban before Austin’s switch to a hands-free ordinance.

“I think it’s very possible that it can be implemented on a statewide scale,” Richman said. “When we first started the texting ban, the texting ban had some limitations when it came to enforcement. Enforcement was very, very difficult, almost impossible, for us to do.”

The City’s ordinance is not enforced on campus, but the state’s would be if it were to pass, according to Cindy Posey, UTPD spokeswoman.

“State law enforcement authorities generally do not enforce city ordinances,” Posey said in an email. “However, UTPD enforces any state law related to distracted driving. If the state were to pass a law specifically prohibiting texting while driving, then yes, UTPD would enforce.” 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has an identical bill filed in the Senate. HB 80 is scheduled for a third reading in the House on Thursday, when it may receive final approval and be sent to the Senate.

Last November, when state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed House Bill 63 — his second legislative attempt in two years to ban texting while driving — we hoped for its passage and understood that our lives might very well depend on it. In a Jan. 31 editorial, we urged Gov. Rick Perry to reconsider his previous outspoken disapproval of such legislation. In 2011, Perry vetoed a similar bill, also filed by Craddick. His rationale at the time, provided by a spokesperson, claimed that “the key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government and mismanagement.”

Unfortunately, Perry’s most recent remarks on the subject echo his 2011 statement, almost verbatim.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that, on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Gov. Perry reiterated his disdain for regulation of adults in their automobiles, calling the texting-while-driving ban an example of “government micromanagement.”

Meanwhile, claims of micromanagement aside, distracted drivers kill more than 15 victims in the United States each day and injure 1,200 others, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One need simply look down the street for evidence that Austin is imperiled by phone-wielding drivers. On Friday, a Travis County jury recommended 10 years’ probation for Gabrielle Nestande for criminally negligent homicide. Nestande had testified that she was checking her phone’s alarm clock setting when her car fatally struck Courtney Griffin, an Austin resident.

Perry has acknowledged the dangers of distracted drivers, noting in a 2011 press release that “texting while driving is reckless and irresponsible.” But, undeterred, he still argues that legislation like HB-63 is an affront to adult Texans’ personal freedoms — the freedom to make dangerous decisions that imperil others’ lives, apparently. Instead, we contend that Perry should reconsider his obligation as Texas’ top executive. As governor, Perry is responsible for implementing and enforcing the law to keep us safe. His 2011 veto, which seems likely to be repeated in 2013, constitutes negligence on his part to protect the rest of us from the clear danger presented by distracted drivers.

Measures to educate and inform drivers, though necessary, are not enough. Perry’s appeal to ideologues who contend that texting while driving is a personal freedom worth protecting threatens the safety of all Texans. Texas roads, which fall under government jurisdiction and are among the most likely places for Texans to meet their demise, must be made safer, even if it means a little “micromanagement.”