Texas May Be Next State to Pass Ban on Texting While Driving

Some backers of the ban, who are optimistic they can get it to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, said he has indicated that he’ll support it.

by Peggy Fikac, San Antonio Express-News / April 4, 2017

(TNS) — Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t said publicly whether he’ll sign a ban on texting while driving, a practice that may have played a key role in an accident in which 13 people were killed after their church mini-bus was struck by a pickup.

But some backers of the ban, who are optimistic that they can get it to Abbott’s desk, said he has indicated that he’ll support it.

Rep. Tom Craddick, a former House speaker who has long pushed the ban, told the San Antonio Express-News that Abbott said when asked about it at a Midland fundraiser that he would back such legislation.

“There were a lot of people there, and he said he definitely will sign it if it got to him,” said Craddick, R-Midland, who shepherded the bill through the House last month.

Craddick said he wasn’t at the event but was told about it afterward. A supporter of a ban who attended the October 2015 fundraiser, Ferrell Davis of Midland, told the Express-News that he heard the exchange.

“My recollection is yes, he said, ‘If they get a bill before me, we’ll get it taken care of,’” Davis said.

Abbott’s office didn’t comment when asked about the exchange.

The proposed ban has been in a brighter spotlight after last week’s accident, which occurred as people were returning to New Braunfels from a First Baptist Church retreat in Leakey. The cause of the accident is under investigation, but a witness said the driver repeatedly apologized and told him he had been texting.

The accident came as the proposed ban, House Bill 62, awaits Senate action.

“Led by Tom Craddick, the Texas House has passed texting-while-driving bans in four consecutive sessions. We hope for a better outcome this time,” said House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, is hopeful about the bill’s chances in the fifth session in which she has pushed such legislation.

A ban was approved by lawmakers in 2011, but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, calling it a “government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

“I’m ... cautiously optimistic. I believe that if we were to vote today, we would pass the bill in the Senate,” said Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has seen the bill die in the Senate before. “I’m hoping that we can maintain those votes.”

Several senators who previously opposed the bill now are supporting it, including Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. Campbell said she changed her mind about the legislation before the accident occurred.

“Texting is distracting, and in a moving vehicle, it’s not the time to have a distraction. Add to that, in my community, we had 13 people that died in that bus accident that happened in Uvalde. ... It’s reported that the driver was texting. I don’t know that,” she said.

“I was on board before the accident,” Campbell said. “It didn’t take an accident to tell me we need this.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, voted against a ban when he was a senator. But he has since made comments showing a change of heart.

“The lieutenant governor has been clear that over the last several years he has evolved on this issue and he does not believe people should text while driving,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.

As for Abbott, Zaffirini said, “The governor wants to ensure that we don’t have a patchwork. He wants to ensure that we have a texting bill for Texas. And basically, that’s what this bill does. It would pre-empt the local ordinances, but only in relation to texting. It would not pre-empt hands-free or cellphone or any other kind of ordinances that any city would pass.”

Three senators voted against Senate Bill 31, the companion to the ban that passed the House, when that measure was backed last month by the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“While well-intentioned, this legislation has extremely limited enforceability. I’m against any kind of distracted driving, not just one certain type, and believe that drivers should be held responsible for any and all unsafe actions taken while operating a motor vehicle via the laws we have in place,” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said in a statement about his vote against the bill.

Craddick said accidents could have been prevented if the ban had been enacted earlier.

“I think there’s … a good chance that a lot of these accidents ... could have been prevented if we had just passed the bill and the governor had signed it,” Craddick said.

©2017 the San Antonio Express-News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.