The Texas House of Representatives passed a bill today banning texting and driving. You might remember a similar bill passing in the 2011 session of the state legislature(HB 242), but that bill was vetoed along with many others by our Texas governor Rick Perry. Perry again voiced his intentions to veto the bill once more if it is passed by the Texas Senate, its next crucible. However, the bill is still stuck in the House as different committees and parties duke it out in attempts to amend it beyond recognition and to sneak parasitic legislation through along with it.
The proposed texting and driving ban bill’s official name is the Alex Brown Memorial Act, a title memorializing the life of a teenage girl who died in a violent car accident in Lubbock, Texas in 2010. She was sending a text to a friend when she lost control of her vehicle.
Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of fatal and serious accidents according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). One of the most common reasons drivers become distracted in the modern, digital world we live in is the use of wireless devices such as cell phones, mp3 players, and tablets. While these portable devices have revolutionized the means and frequency with which we communicate and learn, they have also turned driving into a dangerous, multi-tasking sport.
Several cities within Texas already have local laws in place that prohibit texting and driving. El Paso has a city wide ban against all cell phone use while driving; texting, talking, and reading emails are all illegal. Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and many other Texas cities have enacted local laws that poke at the problem, although they chose to call them “distracted driving” laws.
39 states, Washington D.C., and the US territory of Guam have outlawed texting and driving for all drivers. Texas has limited laws in place banning texting and driving, and the laws that do exist barely scraped by Rick Perry’s veto hatchet in 2011. Texas cell phone laws only apply to a small number of drivers under certain conditions. Currently Texas law bans all cell phone usage of bus drivers and inexperienced drivers: both handheld and hands-free devices. Inexperienced drivers fall under two categories: drivers under the age of 18, and drivers with a learning permit. The only law banning hand-held cell phones usage for all drivers in Texas is the school zone ban. However, it is not a primary law so it is incredibly difficult to enforce and prosecute.
A primary law, pertaining to moving violations, is a law that police officers can pull you over for. Although it is illegal to talk, text, or read your phone while driving through a school zone, the officer has to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a different infraction to pull you over or to write you a ticket. For example, if a patrol officer noticed you talking on the phone while driving through a school zone and speeding then he or she could pull you over and ticket you for both infractions. However, if an officer just saw you talking on the phone but not breaking any other laws while driving through the school zone, they cannot legally write you a ticket. Texas laws banning cell phone usage among bus drivers and new drivers are primary laws, so you can be pulled over and ticketed for these infractions alone.
The Texas senate is now working to dilute the Alex Brown Memorial Act by removing its primary law status with amendments. This would make texting and driving fines enforceable only if the driver was pulled over for another reason. So if the amendment passes and you get pulled over for texting, talking, or reading your cell phone, the officer cannot ticket you for it or for any other violations they discover after pulling you over. Wow. The amendment’s biggest supporters claim that making texting and driving a primary law would encourage racial profiling. Even more interesting is the identity of one of the bill’s biggest critics: Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, Texas passed the cell phone ban for school zones in 2011 but continues to criticize and speak against the state wide texting ban.
Another amendment was approved after the bill passed earlier today. The bill specifically bans texting, reading text, and reading emails while driving. The amendment clarifies a portion of the bill that house members felt was too broad: the bill was not intended to ban talking on or dialing a phone, using GPS navigation, or texting while driving in an emergency situation. But, what constitutes an emergency situation, and wouldn’t you have to read the text on your phone first before you sent an “emergency text” while driving?
And the first amendment to the bill was passed, creating a plausible defense against a texting and driving ticket. The amendment states that the ticket is null and void if the driver can prove that they had a “reasonable belief” that there was an emergency.
And criminal defense attorneys in Texas took note, ready to incorporate the defense for clients if the bill ever makes it past the senate; Rick Perry doesn’t give it the ax again; and it’s not reduced from a primary law by members of the Texas Legislature. It’s veto season after all, this could get interesting.