With Governor Abbott’s signature Tuesday, a statewide ban on texting while driving goes into effect on Sept. 1.
The new law, HB 62, makes it an offense to use a wireless communication device to read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped.
A first-time violation would result in a fine of $25 to $99, while subsequent violations would cost $100 to $200. Kill or seriously injure someone with a vehicle while texting, and it becomes a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail. A violation does not incur points on a driver’s record.
The law is narrowly tailored to define wireless communication device as a cell phone.
Police Chief Russell Kerbow said anything that distracts an operator of a motor vehicle, including texting, jeopardizes public safety.
“The operation of a motor vehicle is a dynamic and fluid operation and seconds count when it comes to reacting to changing road conditions,” he said.
The law allows for the use of hands-free devices including voice-operated technology where the operator does not have to type in the message by hand.
Under an exception written into the law, drivers may use a device to report illegal activity or summon emergency help. Drivers can read a text message they reasonably believe concerns an emergency.
Usage of GPS or navigation systems is excepted from the law, and drivers may use their devices to report traffic and road conditions through a software application.
Police officers are exempted from the law when operating in their official capacity. The law also specifically exempts FCC-licensed radio operators using devices other than cell phones, such as ham radios.
Cell phones that are affixed to the vehicle, whether temporarily or permanently, can be used in the course of their occupational duties to relay information between a driver and a dispatcher or software application or network.
The new law does not prohibit police officers from stopping a vehicle for the sole purpose of citing a driver for a violation of the texting ban. It does prohibit an officer from taking possession of the wireless device, unless otherwise authorized by law.
The bill, authored by State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, passed 123-17 in the house and 23-8 in the senate. Locally, State Reps Tan Parker and Ron Simmons voted for the ban, as did Senator Jane Nelson. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi voted against it.
The law preempts all other local regulations related to reading, writing and sending text messages while operating a vehicle.
Though he signed the bill, Governor Abbott included preemption of local texting regulations among the 20 items included in his call for a special session of the legislature to begin July 18.
Abbott said he was not satisfied with the law as written, and wanted to prevent cities and counties from having any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles.
“We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” Abbott said.
Kerbow shared the sentiment, saying he was not in favor of individual cities passing bans on handheld devices.
“It places an unnecessary burden on the driver to know which city he or she is in and whether they allow the use of the device or not and to what degree,” he said. “It is just difficult to educate operators on very specific ordinances that aren’t anchored in state law.”