(ROCKWALL, TX — August 18, 2017) Texas drivers will have to keep their eyes on the road and off their phones when a new statewide ban on texting while driving goes into effect Sept. 1.
Authored by State Representative Tom Craddick, R-Midland, House Bill 62 prohibits reading, writing or sending electronic messages using a wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped. The bill defines an electronic message as any data that is read from or entered in a wireless communication device for the purpose of communicating with another person, including Facebook messages, Facebook posts, Snapchats, Instagram posts, messages posted to Twitter, SMS text messages, iMessages, emails, instant messages, WhatsApp communication, and any other app for the purpose of communication with another person. Texas became the 47th state to pass a ban on texting while driving when Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill in June 2017.
The fine for first-time offenders ranges from $25-99, and increases to $100-200 for each repeat offense. Officers cannot make an arrest for a texting-while-driving offense, but if a driver causes the death or serious bodily injury of another person, he or she may be fined up to $4,000 and serve up to a year in jail.
While most messaging apps are included in the ban, there are a few key exceptions to the rule. The bill states that if a person operating a vehicle is issued a traffic ticket for an alleged texting while driving violation, “it is an affirmative defense to prosecution” if the driver used the phone for GPS; music; reporting illegal activity or an emergency; to read an electronic message he or she reasonably believed concerned an emergency; in conjunction with a hands-free device such as Bluetooth; or to use Waze, a free social navigation app that connects you to other drivers using real-time road reports.
With the ban only applying to electronic messages, how will an officer know if someone was sending or reading a text message rather than simply using their GPS or finding a song on Spotify? It’s a question of enforcement and many are asking it, including State Representative Justin Holland (R-Rockwall).
“While I don’t think people should text and drive, I voted against the bill for several reasons,” Holland said. “Number one – is it enforceable? How is an officer going to know if someone was texting without asking to see their phone?”
Holland said the bill “prompted him to think of government in responsible ways,” quoting former Texas Governor Rick Perry who called the bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults” when he vetoed it in 2011 after the proposal had passed both the House and Senate. Rep. Craddick attempted to pass the texting-while-driving ban twice more in 2013 and 2015, but it died both times in the Senate
During a special session of the Texas Legislature in July, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for expanding the legislation to roll back any existing city ordinances that ban mobile phone use beyond texting while driving. The Texas Senate gave its final approval of the roll back in a 20-11 vote, and the measure was considered by the House but no vote was taken before the special session concluded.
Even before Governor Abbott signed the bill in June, more than 100 Texas cities had already adopted ordinances making texting while driving illegal in their respective jurisdictions, including Rockwall’s neighboring city of Rowlett. The Rowlett city council adopted the no texting while driving ordinance in April 2014.
The statewide ban, Rowlett Police Chief William Brodnax said, is a good beginning step but is not the final solution to the problem.
“It’s definitely progress, but it’s not the end-all solution,” he said. “I see people every day looking down at their phones while they’re driving and weaving in and out of their lanes in traffic. I think it’s more dangerous than drunk driving.”
Rockwall Police Chief Kirk Riggs said when it comes to enforcement of the ban, officers can make a traffic stop if they see a person who appears to be looking at or typing into their phone while driving, and that drivers may also be issued a citation for committing any other traffic violations as a result of texting, such as dangerously weaving or swerving into other lanes.
He said since the main idea behind the ban is to make the roads safer by cutting down on distracted driving, he hopes people will take that to heart and stay off their phones while they drive.
“What we’re hoping to get is voluntary compliance, as the intent of the texting-while-driving ban is to make people more aware of what they’re doing and where they’re doing it,” Riggs said.
According to annual Texas motor vehicle crash statistics found at TxDOT.gov, Rockwall County has seen a steady increase in distracted driver accidents, with 402 reported in 2014, 474 in 2015 and 476 in 2016. A total of 328 possible injuries and 37 incapacitating injuries were reported as a result of those accidents.
In 2016, there were 109,658 traffic crashes in Texas involving distracted driving, according to the TxDOT website. More than 3,000 people were injured as a result, and 455 died. The number of crashes was highest among new and younger drivers ages 16 to 34.
By Austin Wells, Blue Ribbon News.
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