New state laws go into effect Sunday

Published on Friday, 30 August 2013 22:59 - Written by

A number of new state laws go into effect tomorrow, Sept. 1. They’ll affect everything from how we drive to (potentially) how we vote.

Cell phone use by drivers around schools will be illegal, in most instances. Texas already has a law banning the use of cell phones in school zones when the lights are flashing.

The newest law bans their use by drivers on all school property, including parking lots and drop-off zones. Fines will be similar to cell phone use in school zones — $200 for a first offense.

There are exceptions for vehicles that are stopped, for hands-free devices (Bluetooth) and for emergency calls.

The new law’s intent is to keep student drivers and parents picking up or dropping off kids from being distracted.

Two other new laws will govern how drivers treat school buses and road work crews.

For years, Texas drivers have had to move over or stop for emergency vehicles (fire trucks, ambulances and law enforcement officers). Starting Sunday, road crews will enjoy the same protections.

“Drivers must move over or slow down when approaching TxDOT workers and vehicles that are stopped with overhead flashing blue or amber lights,” that agency says.

“We are very pleased the Legislature recognizes the dangers our employees face each day while working to maintain and build the state’s vast highway network,” said Phil Wilson, TxDOT’s executive director, noting that more than 100 TxDOT employees working in construction areas have been struck and killed by motorists since 1938. “We are hopeful that this new protection for our crews will lead to fewer preventable deaths and injuries.”

Drivers will be required to move out of the lane closest to a TxDOT vehicle (if possible) and to reduce their speed to 20 mph below the posted limit (if the limit is below 25 mph, then drives must slow to 5 mph).

Drivers who don’t comply can be fined up to $2,000.

School buses also will enjoy extra protections, starting Sept. 1. Fines for passing buses when their lights are flashing (or signs are out) will be increased significantly. A first-time violation used to cost $200 to $1,000; the new fines will range from $500 to $1,250.

In some cities such as Dallas, cameras on school buses will take photos and tickets will be mailed to drivers. We haven’t seen those in East Texas yet, but they’re probably coming.

Also, penalties for fleeing the scene of an accident will be increased starting Sunday. The penalty for causing an injury and then fleeing will be two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

A more controversial law could be enforced soon. A voter ID law, passed by the Legislature last session but now held up by a federal court, could apply during the upcoming Texas constitutional referendum on Nov. 5.

The Obama administration’s Department of Justice is suing Texas over the law, saying it could prevent some poor and minority voters from parti- cipating in elections.

But state officials counter that provisions have been made to help those groups obtain IDs.