Texas Senate passes bill to ban texting while driving; Gov. Abbott expected to sign it into law

Published on Friday, 19 May 2017 19:55 - Written by Staff, Wire Reports

Texas moved closer to passing a statewide ban on texting while driving on Friday, as the state Senate approved a measure that has been defeated several times over the last decade.

The family of a young East Texas man who was struck and killed by a driver who was texting said they are thankful.

“This is really great news,” said Harold Patterson, whose son, Will, was part of a highway work crew when he was killed in August 2016. “This is very important to us.”

East Texas senators were split on the issue, with Sen. Robert Nichols, of Jacksonville, voting in favor of the ban, while Sen. Bryan Hughes, of Mineola, opposed it. Both are Republicans.

“We are always in favor of legislation that will increase public safety and save lives,” Hughes said after the vote. “Unfortunately, I do not think this bill does it. The bill contains so many exceptions that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. And there will be a confusing patchwork of laws across the state. In some cities (like Austin), you can’t touch your phone at all, in others you can talk but not text, and in between you can play music, surf the internet and read a novel on your phone. I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to pass a consistent framework.”

Forty-six states have laws banning texting while driving that typically also ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet. Dozens of Texas cities also prohibit texting while driving.

Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have passed versions of a ban that has gained momentum since a March church bus crash that killed 13 people. Federal investigators have said the driver of the pickup that hit the bus said he was checking for a text when the crash happened, and had been taking prescription drugs. Video taken before the accident showed the truck weaving on the road and crossing the center line.

The measure approved Friday would create a statewide ban that preempts local ordinances regarding texting only. It would prohibit the use of hand-held phones to “read, write or send an electronic message” while driving, assessing a fine of up to $99 for first-time offenders and $200 for repeat offenses.

Advocates say the ban would be a life-saving measure and would deter people from using their phones in a way that can have deadly results.

“If this saves the life of one teenager who decides ‘I’ll wait’ ... then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican.

Some lawmakers worry the ban would be difficult and too confusing to enforce and would give police new powers to pull people over who might be doing something legal if they mistake the presence of a phone or mobile device for texting. Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, noted that other potentially dangerous distractions would not be banned.

“We have a real problem with people being pulled over for things that are perfectly legal under this law,” Taylor said. “I could read the newspaper (while driving) and under this law it’s perfectly legal.”

IMPACT ON FAMILY

Will Patterson was 19 when he left his home in Scroggins, a tiny unincorporated community in southern Franklin County, to take a job with a highway construction firm. It was his fourth day on the job working on a stretch of highway near Odessa in August 2016, when he was struck and killed by a driver who was texting.

Will and his father had plans to hunt in the area that coming fall. They had spoken on the phone just the day before.

“We’re doing OK,” Harold Patterson said Friday. “We were sitting in a restaurant today and a young man came up to us and asked if we’re Will’s parents. So we talked with him, shared some memories. We’re learning to move forward as best we can.”

Patterson’s ministry helps, he said. He travels the world with a water well drill he designed himself. It’s now patented as “The Will Drill,” in his son’s honor.

“We’re staying busy with the ministry,” Patterson said. “We’ll be in Cuba in about 10 days, drilling a well. We’ll be in Kenya after that. We’re carrying on. But it’s never going to be the same. My son will never leave us.”

The texting-while-driving bill will now go back to the House for a procedural motion to concur, and then to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bill’s author, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has said he expects Abbott to sign the bill.