Texting while driving ban goes into effect

A top cause of traffic accidents in Texas is now under tighter regulation.

As of Sept. 1, Texas drivers who are caught texting while driving will have to pay a fine paid to local agencies varying from $25-$99 for first-time offenders and $100-$200 for repeat offenders. Failing to follow the texting and driving law is a Class C misdemeanor.

House Bill 62 bans drivers from using a cellular device while their cars are in motion, whether it be sending a text message or using social media. Drivers are only permitted to use their devices for phone calls or for GPS navigation. Drivers can also use their phones if they are at a full stop and hands-free—using a phone mount or using phones through Bluetooth connection.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston—a joint author of HB 62—said the bill is necessary for reducing the number of distracted drivers on the road.

“We fully expect it to decrease the number of fatalities and accidents caused by distracted driving,” Wu said. “It won’t change it overnight, but just the presence of the law itself will change people’s attitudes and minds. People who, before the law went into effect, didn’t think about it, now might at least think about it.”

Wu said the law is also meant to change the public’s attitude about distracted driving, adding that a phone mount is not enough to address the problem. Wu said he believes social media and texting are the cause of the accidents, and hands-free docks do not make a substantial difference.

“Docks don’t really change the texting part,” he said. “Even if it’s docked, the texting part is a significantly more distracting activity than talking.”

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, car accidents in Texas caused by distracted driving increased by 3 percent from 2015 to 2016 with 455 total deaths last year. Accidents were caused more consistently by drivers between ages 16 and 34. From 2014 to 2016, distracted crashes in Harris County increased from 14,156 to 14,804. 

TxDOT Executive Director James Bass said the law should convince drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

“One in five crashes in Texas is caused by distracted driving,” Bass said in a statement. “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.”

Jorey Herrscher, chief inspector for the Harris County Precinct 3 constable’s office, said police officers will be looking for erratic behavior similar to drunk driving , like swaying side to side, when checking for violators of the new law.

“They look like a DWI,” he said. “The driver will usually straighten up and then go back to it if they’re messing with their phone. We’ll pull up beside them to see if their phone is out.”

Herrscher said the law may not immediately stop texting and driving, but he hopes the accumulation of fines will help increase awareness.

“I think in the future we should make talking on the phone illegal,” he said. “Sometimes you get on the phone, blink, and then you’re at your destination without being aware of the drive. It can be very dangerous.”