(TNS) -- AUSTIN — The House passed a bill Thursday that would ban texting while driving in Texas, a day after a lengthy and animated debate.
This is the fourth time former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has tried to pass legislation that would make it illegal to text and drive statewide. House Speaker Joe Straus congratulated Craddick, calling it a "common-sense ban" in a tweet.
The House voted 114-32 to pass the legislation with an amendment to avoid double jeopardy, meaning if you are pulled over in a county with a local ordinance you can't be fined twice.
Despite the victory, there was much debate over the bill.
"How in God's name would an officer know you are texting?" said Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston. "I think this bill falls short of where this Legislature can get to in terms of texting while driving."
House Bill 62 would make using a phone while driving a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine ranging from $25 to $99 with penalties up to $200 for repeat offenders.
Dutton was the bill's most vocal opponent and proposed numerous amendments, including prohibiting an officer from using texting as the only probable cause to pull somebody over and having the the law apply only to Texas highways, not local roads. Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, also proposed that drivers not be ticketed "for using their phone while under 10 miles per hour, also known as I-35."
Other representatives questioned the bill's penalties and asked for clarification on drivers who use their phone's GPS applications. All of the amendments were tabled.
Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, a co-author of the bill, compared the bill's provisions to getting pulled over for not wearing a seat belt.
"If an officer sees you without a seat belt on, as a sworn officer, he will testify to that in court, and then a jury is left to decide," he said, adding that getting pulled over for texting while driving would be no different.
The bill also prohibits an officer from taking a phone if the driver is found in violation and does not assign points to a driver's license.
Texas is one of four states that does not have a texting while driving ban. The state does ban drivers who are in school zones, those who are under the age of 18, and bus drivers with minors on board from using phones while driving. More than 95 cities in Texas have passed local ordinances banning some form of cellphone use while driving to fill the legislative gaps.
The bill will supersede local laws but give officials the opportunity to have stricter texting while driving bans, Wu said.During the 2015 legislative session, the bill easily passed the House but didn't receive enough votes to reach the Senate floor. Craddick came close to passing the bill in 2011 after it passed the House and the Senate but died at former Gov. Rick Perry's behest. Perry called the legislation "a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults."
Wu said at a news conference last month he found it "outrageous" that the bill still has not been passed. Families who have lost loved ones to texting while driving accidents spoke at the news conference and on the House and Senate floors. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has an identical bill, Senate Bill 31, that she will try to pass for the fifth time.
Wu applauded the families, many who have spoken at the Capitol all five years, after the vote Wednesday and thanked them on Twitter.
"Now, we need to turn our attention to the Texas Senate. That's where the bill was killed last session," he said in another tweet.
The Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions, which has spoken favorably of the bill, echoed Wu's comments in a news release.
"We hope that 2017 finally will be the session that the Texas Legislature outlaws one form of distracted driving that has injured and killed too many Texans in the years since such legislation was first introduced," said Beaman Floyd, the coalition's executive director.
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