Texting while driving will be prohibited in the state of Texas beginning Friday.
Texting while driving is defined in Texas House Bill 62 as the use of a wireless communication device to read, write or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle, unless the vehicle is stopped. HB 62 was signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott on June 6.
Charles Bubany, professor for Texas Tech School of Law, said there is documentation and a general understanding of how many serious injuries and deaths are caused by distracted driving.
“There’s really no argument about (the texting while driving law),” he said. “This bill is designed by the authors to protect against the hazards of distracted driving, and eliminate the serious public safety concern.”
The new texting and driving bill is also recognized as the Alex Brown Memorial Act in honor of 17-year-old Brown who was killed in a texting and driving accident Nov. 10, 2009. According to enddd.org, her family fought to end texting and driving through supporting the bill and establishing the Remember Alex Brown Foundation.
Tracy Pearl, associate professor for Texas Tech School of Law, said there has been an increase in driving related injuries and fatalities because of distracted driving.
“I think the goal (of HB 62) is to cut down on distracted driving, which has become a very serious problem throughout the United States,” Pearl said. “(Students) should know that they’re not allowed to text and drive anymore. Even outside of the law, texting and driving is a terrible idea. The statistics are horrifying, and we should be very concerned with this uptick in fatalities on U.S. roads. Even outside the law, students should be very careful about texting and driving because it’s incredibly dangerous and cannot be done safely.”
Drivers are subject to prosecution and liable for a fine if observed committing the offence of texting and driving in the presence of a police officer.
Texting while driving is a punishable fine of up to $99 as a first-time offender, and the fine increases to between $100 and $200 as a repeat offender. Pearl said there will be consequences if you injure someone or cause an accident because you were texting while driving. It’s a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and imprisonment for up to a year.
“I think the law is a good first step in creating consequences for people who act in disregard of their own safety and the safety of others,” she said.
Bubany said texting while driving is like any other traffic offence: People can get away with it if they are not observed doing it. Therefore, some may still, withstanding the law, engage in prohibited activity. However, his guess is that most people will take the law seriously.
“I think the threat of prosecution in a crime will detour most people, but I assume some people will still be willing to risk being prosecuted,” he said. “The hope of the legislature is that at least we’ve sent out a message that we think (texting while driving) is a criminal offence, and our hope is that people will adhere to the law.”
There are multiple defenses in the texting while driving law that allow drivers to use cell phones while operating a moving vehicle. According to HB 62, affirmative defenses include using a portable wireless communication device in conjunction with a hands-free device, to navigate using a GPS or navigation system, to report illegal activity, to summon emergency help, to enter information into a software application that provides information relating to traffic and road conditions, to read an electronic message reasonably believed to concern an emergency or to activate a function that plays music.
Bubany said he has looked at the defenses and thinks people will have a hard time claiming a defense if they are caught using a wireless device.
“Since it’s an affirmative defense, the person claiming the defense is going to have to establish that they qualify under one of these defenses,” he said. “I’m not sure that the defenses listed will give people much flexibility to challenge to prosecution.”
The Texas Tech Police Department policy is to enforce state law, which in this case is located in the Transportation Code 545.4251, Amy Ivey, Sergeant for TTPD, said.
Any time TTPD officers observe somebody receiving, reading or communicating an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle, they have the right to stop the driver and either give them a verbal warning or issue a citation.
She said TTPD’s main is to make sure all roads are safe and to warn students to follow the law and stay safe. Texting and driving, according to Ivey, is where most deaths occur on the road.
“I 100 percent agree with the changes (of the texting while driving law),” she said. “I believe (HB 62) is going to make our roads, hopefully, become a safer place to drive. It is going to keep the driver safe on the roadway that way everybody, at the end of the day, can get home safely to see their family and friends.”
Prior to this law being passed, there were a lot of cities and countries in Texas that had passed their own texting and driving bans. Some cities have gone even further than banning texting and driving by making talking on the phone illegal while driving, Pearl said.
She also said the Alex Brown Memorial Act trumps texting and driving bans at the local level, so if a city already has a texting and driving law, it will be replaced by the larger state law.
“The amendment (of the texting while driving law) was designed to make sure that the state law preempts all local ordinances,” Bubany said. “(HB 62) is trying to make the law uniform so that you don’t have different rules depending on where you’re driving. It’s designed to create a statewide statute, so it’s the same regardless of what part of the state you’re driving in.”