With all the hubbub in Texas over bathroom bills and whatnot, one bill that quietly swooped into place is a statewide ban on texting and driving. It goes into effect on September 1.
Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill but with reservations. At a news conference on June 6, he expressed concerns that a city could usurp the state's power and make its own local law to override the statewide ban, and his intent to make sure Texas doesn't turn into a "patchwork quilt" of regulations.
"I signed it into law today to ensure Texas is doing all it can to prevent accidents caused by texting while driving," he said. "Now that Texas does have a ban on texting while driving, I am calling for legislation that fully preempts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles."
An amendment to the bill would be considered once the state's House and Senate reconvene July 18.
Abbott's comments, and the bill overall, pose problems on three levels.
First, inconsistency. Many cities have stricter laws than what has been passed at the state level. Austin, for example, outlaws the use of your phone while driving. Period. No exceptions. In total, 90 Texas cities have some form of ban.
Second, the bill is convoluted and confusing. In addition to outlawing texting and driving, you can't send an email or read a message if you're behind the wheel and the vehicle is moving. And yet you are allowed to use your phone to change the radio station, check on traffic, or get directions. You also can talk on the phone while you drive, even if you don't have a hands-free device.
It’s an odd contradiction, allowing you to use your phone while driving for some things and not others.
The third issue raises the biggest concern of all: Police will have the authority to pull drivers over they believe are texting.
Texas is one of the last states to pass a ban on texting (Arizona, Missouri, and Montana are the others). If caught, it's a misdemeanor charge with fines ranging from $25 to $99. Repeat offenders may get a bill for up to $200.
Efforts to get a bill like this in place have been in the works for more than a decade. A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2011, but then-Governor Rick Perry vetoed it, calling it a way to "micro-manage the behavior of adults." He’s not wrong.
Supporters of the bill argue it will make roads safer. Last year, 455 people were killed and more than 3,000 were seriously injured in crashes due to driver distractions, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Our reaction time on the road is slower when we're multitasking. But is texting really more dangerous than talking on the phone or changing the radio station? If the intent is to mitigate behavior, then the line drawn is arbitrary and confusing to keep track of what is legal and what isn't, particularly when those laws change between cities.
Not to downplay the risk. Texting and driving is dangerous. None of us should do it. In fact, during my last call to AT&T — billing issues, big surprise — they ended the call by asking me to not text and drive. I was a bit confused since I called about my DirectTV service. But whatever, the message is out. Don't do it. It's dangerous. Duh.
But just because it's a risk doesn't mean a law will do anything to curb the appeal of picking up the phone and sending a message to a friend when you're running late. I'll be the first to admit I've done it. I'm definitely a $200 violator.
Opponents say the bill is hard to enforce — which is hard to argue with — and that it encroaches on our individual liberties.
The most troubling element is that it allows police to pull over drivers they believe are texting. On its own, that may be okay. But in Texas, we already have to contend with Senate Bill 4, which allows police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.
This bill, which also goes into effect on September 1, is highly controversial, and there's already been pushback. On June 7 the city of Dallas joined Austin and San Antonio in calling it unconstitutional. Lawsuits filed by different Texas cities challenging the bill have been consolidated into one case. All positive news; a hearing on the bill will take place on June 26.
But the bill banning texting is highly disconcerting in conjunction with Senate Bill 4. Is it a false assumption to see a routine stop start with texting and end with deportation?