Texas House OKs texting while driving ban, but veto looms

A statewide ban on texting while driving preliminarily passed the Texas House on Wednesday, advancing a plan that four years ago fell victim to a gubernatorial veto -- and could face a similar fate this time.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Craddick, the bill allows police to pull over motorists they suspect are using a wireless device to read, write or send a text message while driving, unless the vehicle is stopped. Offenders would be fined up to $99 for a first offense and a maximum $200 for subsequent ones.

The measure passed 102 to 40, after hours of sometimes heated debate.

"Texans who text increase their crash risk by eight times," said Craddick, a Midland Republican who is a former House Speaker and sponsored similar bans in two past sessions. Lawmakers approved it in 2011, but then-Gov. Rick Perry issued a veto, calling it a "government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults."

Perry's successor, fellow Republican Greg Abbott, has said "it's premature" to say whether he'll veto a ban this time.

Critics say the prohibition limits personal liberties but also is unnecessary since 38 local ordinances affecting the majority of Texas residents already ban texting while driving. Others worry it will create a "slippery slope" where police can stop anyone without the ability to prove the motorist was texting since they have no authority to seize phone records.

The 71-year-old Craddick, the House's longest-serving member, said he originally voted against a statewide seatbelt mandate that took effect in 1985, but "it saved many lives. This will too."

Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton said the measure gives police the right to stop virtually anyone on loose suspicions of texting, saying bill supporters "want to err on the side of giving up liberties."

Dutton held up his cellphone and asked, "Can you tell if I'm texting right now?" Answering from across the House floor, Craddick said he couldn't, prompting Dutton to shoot back: "That's exactly my point!" He tried to amend the bill to prohibit police pulling people over solely on suspicion of texting -- but that fell short, 73-66.

The measure needs a final, procedural vote before heading to the Senate, where Laredo Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini has for the fourth consecutive session introduced a similar message.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 459 people died in 2013 in crashes in which a driver was distracted by a cellphone or something else.

A study last year by Alva O. Ferdinand, of the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, found that states saw a 3 percent reduction in crash-related fatalities after adopting a "primary" ban on texting while driving, or one that allows police to stop drivers solely on suspicion of texting.

"For Texas, we would expect to see, on average, 90 deaths avoided per year if we were to pass an explicit statewide texting ban," Ferdinand said in a recent interview.