New texting while driving law doesn’t do enough

Sam Groves

Ever the paragon of leadership, the state of Texas became the 47th in the nation to sign into law a ban on texting while driving last week. The law is set to take effect on Sept. 1.

In a legislative session rife with bills aimed at making life miserable for transgender people, undocumented immigrants and women seeking abortions, the texting while driving ban seems refreshingly sane and uncontroversial by comparison. Besides the most fanatical libertarian (and oh yeah, our former governor) who would oppose a bill that bans a behavior proven to raise the risk of an accident?

Problem is, the bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week doesn’t go far enough. Most importantly, it only bans the use of handheld phones to “read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle.”

To be perfectly blunt, that’s insufficient. As the National Safety Council reported in 2014, one in four car accidents in the United States are caused by cellphone use. But of those cellphone-related accidents, only 5 percent happen because the driver was texting. According to USA Today, the majority “involve drivers distracted while talking on handheld or hands-free cellphones.”

A bill that only bans sending messages while driving is going to have a very limited impact.

Other states have gone further: 13 states, including California, New York and Illinois, have banned all drivers from using handheld cellphones while on the road. Moreover, a number of towns and cities in Texas have enacted similar regulations. About 40, including Austin, prohibit the use of handheld devices to make phone calls while driving.

As it stands, the statewide texting while driving ban would leave those more stringent local regulations in place. But Gov. Abbott is pushing for legislation during the legislature’s upcoming special session that would “preempt local ordinances that go beyond the statewide texting ban,” according to the Texas Tribune. Abbott says he wants to make Texas law regarding distracted driving more uniform.

That’s not a terrible idea — after all, the rule of law suffers under too great inconsistency from one county to the next. No one is likely to change their driving habits based on what city they happen to be passing through. But as much as conflicting local and state laws could make Texas a more dangerous place, so do lax regulations on the use of cellphones while driving, which makes rolling back those regulations at the local level a tremendously stupid idea.

It’s surprising that Gov. Abbott, an adamant defender of states’ rights, would be so eager to impose the will of a larger government over its local subordinates. But if he really wants to make Texas law more uniform while making Texas a safer place, he should recognize that texting while driving is just one part of an issue that was responsible for over 1.5 million crashes nationwide in 2013 and ask the legislature to pass a law aimed at preventing all cellphone-related car accidents.

Groves is a philosophy sophomore from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.