Many motorists still send text messages such as LOL (laughing out loud) while driving – but soon police may have the last laugh. In the closing hours of the Legislative session that ended Monday, lawmakers passed a statewide ban on sending or reading emails, text messages or instant messages while driving. The bill awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. If it becomes law, motorists could be fined $200 for a violation, beginning Sept. 1. Under Texas law, the governor has 20 days after adjournment to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature.
The measure that passed the Senate 28-3 late Sunday is tougher than a previous version of the bill that was debated earlier in the session. The previous version would have outlawed sending text messages, but not reading them, while driving. “Everybody agreed it was wrong to do the actual texting, the inputting, while you’re driving, but a lot of people thought it was OK to read the text,” said Vic Suhm, who as executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition closely tracks transportation laws.
But safety experts have warned against encouraging motorists to read texts. Nationwide, distracted driving caused 20 percent of traffic deaths in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cellphone use is one of the most common distractions. Also, some Texas lawmakers had raised concerns about whether the previous version of the bill could be enforced. For example, how could an officer prove that a driver was sending, rather than just reading, a message? The tougher version that passed both houses of the Legislature eliminates that confusion by making it illegal to either send or read a message.
However, the bill includes a handful of exceptions. For example, drivers would still be allowed to input a phone number into their device for purposes of making a call. Also, texting would still be allowed for those who use hands-free devices, a global positioning system or a device attached to the car. Also, drivers whose job includes communicating with a dispatcher would still be able to send job-related texts. State law already bans the use of cellphones – texting or talking – in school zones, although not all cities enforce it. Also, Texas drivers younger than 18 cannot use wireless devices in their first year of driving.
Many cities have tackled distracted driving on their own. Arlington is considering adopting a tougher local ordinance prohibiting cellphone use. Austin and San Antonio are among the cities that have banned texting while driving, and El Paso has banned texting and talking while driving. In April, the Texas Department of Transportation launched a National Distracted Driving Awareness Month campaign. Cellphone use caused 3,308 crashes in Texas in 2009 – the most recent year for which data was available – including 41 fatalities.
“Drivers simply do not realize the dangers that are posed when they take their eyes and minds off the road and their hands off the wheel and focus on activities other than driving,” Carol Rawson, Texas Department of Transportation traffic operations director, said during the campaign kickoff. The texting ban that passed Sunday had been inserted into an unrelated bill, which grants former peace officers the ability to carry a concealed handgun without a license.
Gordon Dickson, firstname.lastname@example.org