AUSTIN — Texting while driving is now illegal in Texas. The ban went into effect on Friday.
“For some time there has been a big issue with people texting while driving. It was inevitable that the state was going to pass a law regarding texting while driving and that is what they have done,” Waxahachie Police Chief Wade Goolsby said. “What citizens need to know is it is illegal to text while driving unless they are sitting still in a stopped position. There are some exceptions like if it is an emergency or if they are reporting a crime.”
The law, which was passed by the 85th Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbot earlier this year, states that a driver commits an offense if they use a portable wireless communications device to read, write or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle — unless the vehicle is stopped. Some of the exceptions include when texting is done in conjunction with a hands-free device, to report illegal activity, receiving an emergency message and calling for emergency assistance.
Restrictions are also placed on cell phone use. The law states that a person under 18 years old may not operate a motor vehicle while using a cell phone, except in the case of an emergency. Also, an individual who is under 17 years old and who has a restricted motorcycle or moped license cannot operate a motorcycle or moped while using a cell phone, except in the case of emergency.
A violation is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of at least $25 but not more than $99. However, if the person has been previously convicted at least one time of the offense, it is punishable by a fine of at least $100 but not more than $200. The law also notes that hands-free devices are acceptable to use.
“If you cause a death or serious bodily injury of another person then it is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine not to exceed $4,000 and confinement in jail is not to exceed a year,” Goolsby stated. “This law supersedes any local ordinances that have been put in place.”
Red Oak Lt. Marc Schroeder explained, “There are a few offenses that law enforcement cannot arrest for. One is an open container and the other is for speeding. This becomes part of those two items that law enforcement cannot arrest for. They can only site for the offense. In addition to that what some people may not be aware of to be prosecuted for the offense behavior of the action of texting while driving must be committed in the presence or in view of a peace officer unless it is established by some other means of evidence.”
Schroeder believes this law will help to increase safety for motorists at large.
“We work several accidents that are related to texting," he said. "Drivers can show the same type of behavior as a person that is impaired or intoxicated when they are texting while driving.”
According to the National Highway Transportation Board’s website, distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives and 391,000 people were injured in 2015. Distracted driving is described as any activity that diverts attention from driving, which includes talking, texting, drinking, talking to people in the vehicle and using the stereo or navigation system.
“Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds,” the NHTB website stated. “At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 109,658 traffic crashes in Texas involved distracted driving in 2016. Those crashes resulted in 455 deaths and 3,087 serious injuries.
“One in five crashes in Texas is caused by distracted driving,” said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. “We are pleased the Texas Legislature recognizes the extreme danger caused by texting and driving. The new law sends a very clear message to Texans to put down their phones and focus on the road. We are hopeful this new law will help save lives and reduce injuries.”
In addition, TxDOT also states that school bus operators also are prohibited from using cell phones while driving if children are present.
Midlothian Assistant Police Chief Kevin Johnson encourages the public to practice safe driving habits to keep themselves and others safe.
“I personally, and a lot of our officers, have worked car crashes where somebody’s life was significantly impacted unnecessarily by someone’s use of a cell phone,” Johnson explained. “That is what drove us to adopt a city ordinance. With the state legislator drafting this statute it is clearly being recognized as a problem and the risk that it poses.”
Johnson said at this time the department has directed its officers to cease enforcement until the new law is completely reviewed and to give officers training on the new statute. He expects enforcement of the new law to begin next week.
From Jan. 1 to present, Midlothian Police have written 141 citations and 157 warnings for violations of the city’s no cell phone ordinance.