After years of failed proposals in the Texas Legislature, drivers in the state are now subject to fines for texting while driving and stiffer penalties for injuring others in a texting-while-driving crash.
The statewide ban on texting, reading, writing or sending from an electronic device while driving starts Friday. Under the new law, violators may face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of between $25 to $99, although penalties can reach more than $200 for repeat offenders.
Texting drivers who cause a wreck that leads to death or serious injury could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. D.L. Wilson said.
“In the McLennan County area, we’ve seen serious bodily injury or fatality crashes due to texting or talking on cellphones,” Wilson said. “Speaking about texting specifically, even though there was never a law for texting and driving in Texas, if you are reckless in your actions while operating a motor vehicle you will be held accountable for your actions.”
Texas motorists can still talk on the phone while driving, if motorists only briefly touch the phone or use the car to start and end a call. The new measure also does not have an impact GPS systems or music applications on cellphones.
“We are seeing a lot more crashes because of distracted driving, and cellphones are playing a big part in that,” Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. “People are so used to looking at, being on, checking in and doing so much with their cellphones, they just forget to realize that they are still operating a 2,500 pound missile down the street.”
In 2011, former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed similar legislation banning texting while driving, saying the state should not “micromanage” adult behavior. Swanton said the new law is limited and is not likely to have much of an impact on local and statewide distracted driving statistics.
“People are being hurt and killed for texting and driving, but that being said, the new law as it is written is what we call a ‘feel good law,’ ” Swanton said. “It makes people feel good that it is out there and they feel like it can help, but the reality of it is that, the way the law is written, it is extremely difficult to enforce.
“It’s not going to be a significant help to law enforcement to reduce accident or incident numbers because of distracted driving. If anything, it will give people a reason to do the right thing.”
In 2014 alone, more than 3,170 people were killed nationwide in crashes involving distracted drivers, and 431,000 people were injured. In 2016, there were 109,658 traffic crashes in Texas alone that involved distracted driving, causing more than 3,000 serious injuries and at least 455 fatalities, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
State law also bans cell phone use by drivers in school zones, drivers under the age of 18 and bus drivers with minors on board. About 95 Texas cities also have some type of local ban on cell phone use while driving, though no McLennan County cities have their own ban.
Texas is joining 46 states in banning texting while driving. Arizona, Missouri and Montana are the last three states without a statewide ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State troopers and many local agencies will not have the resources to subpoena cellphone records for each motorist accused of texting while driving, Wilson said.
“We have to visibly see them texting and driving or holding it down and reading it, but that’s all we need for the violation,” Wilson said. “If the motorist causes serious bodily injury or death, we will subpoena cellphone records and hold motorists accountable for their actions.”
Though the law may not yield a turnaround in distracted driving statistics, it could make a difference and encourage parents to teach their kids not to text while driving.
“If the new law starts a trend like that, hopefully this law can stop a serious crash from happening,” Wilson said. “If it can save one life, it is worth it.”