Published 11:21 am Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Senate State Affairs committee on Monday took another look at a bill banning texting and driving. The committee approved the Senate version, SB 31 by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini back in March, but the measure never made it to the floor for a vote. A similar measure, by Midland Representative Tom Craddick, cleared the House floor just a few days after the hearing on the Senate bill. Monday, the committee took up that version of the legislation, House Bill 62.

Under HB 62, sponsored in the Senate by Zaffirini, drivers who are caught using a phone to text, send email or post to social media while driving would face a fine of up to $99 for a first offense and $200 for subsequent offenses. The bill only penalizes texting while driving a moving car; drivers in an idle or parked car could still use their phones to send texts. The ban would not apply to using one’s phone as a GPS or music device.   Some of the differences between the version that cleared the House and the version before State Affairs include a provision that would enhance the penalty for texting and driving to a class A misdemeanor if it leads to a crash that kills or seriously injures another person. It also requires that an officer directly witness the offense before they can issue a citation. Finally, it would preempt any city ordinance relating to texting and driving. More than 100 cities in Texas have ordinances on the books restricting texting and driving, but this bill would supersede city codes.

There is growing evidence to indicate that distracted driving, which includes use of a phone to text, post to social media or check email, is becoming one of the most significant driving risks. A 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that more than two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 64 admitted to texting while driving in the last 30 days.   According to the CDC, in 2013, 18 percent of injury accidents involved a distracted driver, and distracted driving accounted for more than 3000 road fatalities that year. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates that more than 100,000 car accidents are caused by distracted driving every year in the state. Texas is one of only four states without some sort of restriction on texting while driving.

This idea has had a long road thus far in the Legislature, with Zaffirini working on the idea for the past five sessions. “I’ve been working on this ten years. Ten years, and eight years with Representative Craddick. We have tried so hard, picking up one vote at a time,” she said. ” We have come a long way, and we have the votes, we simply just need to pass it.” State Affairs Committee Chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman said she once opposed the measure, but now she believes the state needs this legislation. “The time has come for the State of Texas to pass this law,” she told committee members. “Our social behavior has changed, this is going to save our kids’ lives.” Huffman cited recent polling numbers showing that nearly eighty percent of Texans agree that texting and driving should be against the law. The bill remains pending before the committee, but could see a vote later in the week.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, May 16 at 11 a.m.