Tex­ting re­stric­tion OK’d by com­mit­tee

Mak­ing prac­tice il­le­gal while driv­ing could face road­block in the Se­nate.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear bwear@states­man.com

Judith Zaf­firini and her tex­ting-while-driv­ing ban be­gan a fifth Sisyphean jour­ney through the Texas Se­nate on Monday with ap­proval from the State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. But de­spite that 6-3 vote, the boul­der re­mains large and the in­cline steep for the Laredo Demo­crat’s long­time goal.

Se­nate Bill 31, crit­i­cized by some Repub­li­cans as dif­fi­cult to en­force and an in­tru­sion on adults’ pri­vate be­hav­ior, is likely to sail through the House, based on sup­port there in past ses­sions and a unan­i­mous House com­mit­tee vote last week for an iden­ti­cal bill. But the Se­nate is a dif­fer­ent story.

“Driv­ing is a priv­i­lege, not a right, and it is the Texas Leg­is­la­ture’s duty to pre­serve Tex­ans’ right to safety,” Zaf­firini told the com­mit­tee.

Vot­ing against were state Sens. Bran­don Creighton, R-Hum­ble; Charles Sch­w­ert­ner, R-Ge­orge­town; and Brian Bird­well, R-Gran­bury.

The bill would ban use of hand­held phones to “read, write or send an elec­tronic mes­sage”

in a mov­ing car or truck statewide, some­thing that is al­ready against the law in more than 100 Texas cities and towns, and in all but four states. Ad­vo­cates for such leg­is­la­tion ar­gue that use of phones for mes­sages, emails, pho­tos and the in­ter­net, more than talk­ing to oth­ers in the car or fid­dling with dash­board con­trols, leads to some­times deadly inat­ten­tion to the road.

Zaf­firini said her bill would not pre­vent use of a hand­held phone to talk while driv­ing — un­like Austin’s or­di­nance and many other lo­cal laws in Texas. But she said that pass­ing the bill even with­out that pro­hi­bi­tion is dif­fi­cult and that she at least wants to pro­hibit the most dan­ger­ous and dis­tract­ing driv­ing be­hav­ior.

“It is largely a de­ter­rent,” Zaf­firini said of her bill. “If peo­ple know some­thing is against the law, most of them won’t do it.”

The sta­tis­ti­cal sup­port of the pro­hi­bi­tion re­mains a mov­ing tar­get, not least be­cause of what law en­force­ment says is a ten­dency for drivers in­volved in accidents to lie about cell­phone use.

House vote soon

House Bill 62, iden­ti­cal to Zaf­firini’s bill, was ap­proved 13-0 by a com­mit­tee Fri­day and is ex­pected to be passed by the full House as soon as this week.

Aaron Berry, 13, of Hous­ton, was among sev­eral vic­tims of wrecks in­volv­ing phone use who tes­ti­fied Monday. His fa­ther and mother were killed, and he and his younger brother were par­a­lyzed from the waist down in a head-on col­li­sion caused by a dis­tracted driver on July 3, 2011. He was there in a wheel­chair, as he has been in pre­vi­ous ses­sions and hear­ings, to tell his story.

“There is no way to de­scribe the pain, and I just can’t un­der­stand why there is no law on it in the state of Texas,” Berry said. “Please don’t make us wait an­other day.”

The pro­hi­bi­tion in SB 31 would not ap­ply to law en­force­ment and emer­gency of­fi­cials, or peo­ple us­ing car ra­dio trans­mit­ters, and the law would cre­ate a de­fense against pros­e­cu­tion if the driver send­ing a mes­sage from a hand-held phone “rea­son­ably be­lieved” that an emer­gency needed to be re­ported.

A first of­fense would carry a fine of $25 to $99. The fine for sub­se­quent of­fenses would be $100 to $200, and the bill stip­u­lates that a con­vic­tion would not re­sult in points be­ing as­sessed on the driver’s record.

Zaf­firini has been try­ing to pass a phone ban each ses­sion since 2009, get­ting clos­est in 2011 — when for­mer Gov. Rick Perry ve­toed leg­is­la­tion that passed both cham­bers — and last ses­sion. The House ap­proved a sim­i­lar ban in 2015, and Zaf­firini had 18 com­mit­ted votes in the 31-mem­ber Se­nate. But she needed one more un­der Se­nate rules to bring the bill up for de­bate and never got it.

The Se­nate’s “free­dom cau­cus” of lib­er­tar­ian-minded Repub­li­cans was the heart of the op­po­si­tion in 2015, and that fig­ures to be the case this time.

Sup­port falls off

Changes in the Se­nate mem­ber­ship since 2015 have tilted against the tex­ting bill. For­mer state Sen. Kevin Eltife, thought to be a sup­porter, has been re­placed by Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler, a so­cial con­ser­va­tive who has tended to vote with the free­dom cau­cus. Hughes sup­ported the bill Monday in com­mit­tee, as a “cour­tesy,” Zaf­firini later said, but she is still work­ing to se­cure his vote on the Se­nate floor.

Zaf­firini over the past ses­sions has man­aged to turn some “no” votes into sup­port, she said, cit­ing among oth­ers Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and Repub­li­cans Joan Huff­man of Hous­ton and Jane Nel­son of Flower Mound.

“I wor­ried about too much gov­ern­ment and gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence,” Huff­man said. “But through the years, I watched peo­ple’s so­cial be­hav­ior change. I can look around this room and see peo­ple tex­ting. Our be­hav­ior has changed, and I think we have a moral obli­ga­tion as sen­a­tors to pro­tect our con­stituents.”


Aaron Berry (in wheel­chair) and his sis­ter, Willa, were among those who tes­ti­fied at a Texas Se­nate State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing Monday on Se­nate Bill 31, a statewide ban on tex­ting while driv­ing. The sib­lings lost their par­ents in an ac­ci­dent in which the driver of the other ve­hi­cle was dis­tracted by tex­ting six years ago.

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