While some students hit the road for spring break vacation, the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate worked to pass bills cracking down on texting while driving.
House Bill 62, which passed 114–32 last Thursday, bans texting while driving statewide and is now moving to the Senate for final approval. The bill would make texting while driving a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine anywhere from $25 to $99 for first-time offenders and up to $200 for repeat offenders. This is the fourth time the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is attempting to turn the bill into a law.
Additionally, Senate Bill 31, which is identical to HB 62 and written by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is on its way through the Senate for the fifth time since 2009.
“Driving is a privilege, not a right, and it is the Texas Legislature’s duty to preserve Texans’ right to safety,” Zaffirini told the Senate Committee on State Affairs last Monday.
While more than 90 cities in Texas have enacted hands-free laws, Texas is currently one of four states with no statewide ban on texting while driving.
In 2015, the city of Austin enacted its own hands-free ordinance. First-time offenders face a fine of $220, while second-time offenders face fines up to $500, said Austin Police Department Sgt. Michael Barger. APD issued 5,122 citations to drivers who violated the hands-free ordinance in 2015 and 4,965 citations in 2016, KXAN reported last month.
Even so, APD began amping up their enforcement efforts last month, conducting weekly hands-free initiatives by utilizing officers on motorcycles, bicycles and Capital Metro buses.
“The initial response from the majority of the public was to adjust their behavior,” Barger said in an email.
The lack of a statewide ban creates confusion for drivers traveling in and out of local hands-free areas, Barger said. The UT Police Department, for example, has no means to enforce the city ordinance because it is a state agency. However, UTPD Lt. Robert Stock said officers still see distracted driving occurring on and around campus.
“We see (distracted driving) all the time,” Stock said. “Some are students, staff or faculty … or just people passing through the area. It’s a large mix.”
Despite the bill’s opponents arguing that hands-free laws do not necessarily reduce crash rates and $200 fines will not be enough to deter violators, supporters of the bill have cited a number of crash-related statistics. In 2015, 476 people were killed in crashes in Texas as a result of distracted driving and in Travis County, 4,935 crashes were the result of distracted driving, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
On average, an individual’s eyes are off the road for 5 seconds while texting — at 55 miles per hour, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded, according to Distraction.gov. Additionally, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that it takes drivers a total of 27 seconds to fully re-engage in the act of driving after texting.
“In an urban area, there are significantly more dangers in a short distance,” Barger said in an email. “Two to three seconds at 65 miles per hour without watching where you are going can land a driver in a ditch or wrapped around a tree.”