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Why the Ban on Texting While Driving In Texas Hasn't Made Enough of a Difference

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In September of 2017, Texas lawmakers attempted to address concerns about distracted driving by passing House Bill 62, which made texting while driving illegal across the state. The results in the year since the passage of the bill, however, have been mixed, with little evidence that the bill has led to a significant reduction in the number of accidents caused by distracted driving.

Distracted driving is not only a problem in Texas, it's a national problem. Accidents caused by a distracted driver using a cellphone account for a significant percentage of serious and fatal accidents on the road. This should come as no surprise given that a driver typically takes their eyes off the road for 5 or more seconds when sending or reading a text message. At 55 mph, that's the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field blindfolded.

Our law firm has been passionate about this issue for years. We've seen all too clearly the harm that has come to people involved in serious accidents caused by distracted drivers. So, the real question is, why hasn't this new law made more of a difference?

1. The Law Only Covers Texting

Texting isn't the only form of distracted driving involving cell phones. There are countless distractions available on our smartphones and mobile devices, including navigation systems, social media and music apps. Even placing a phone call is dangerous because you can take your eyes off the road while scrolling through your contacts list to make your call.

Isolating text messaging as the only activity banned while driving seems to have fallen short of addressing the broader distracted driving epidemic. Where other states have seen more dramatic results by requiring that drivers only be allowed to conduct hands-free activities, Texas's law is far narrower.

2. It's Hard To Prove

Although texting is banned under the current law, drivers over the age of 18 can still use handheld cell phones for GPS navigation and music. From an enforcement perspective, this has proved problematic for law enforcement officers. A recent Star Telegram article showed, for example, that in the City of Arlington, law enforcement officers have only written three citations for texting while driving since the law was put into effect in September of 2017.

The problem isn't that police don't see distracted drivers. The problem is proving that drivers are using their cell phones to text. Even if an officer sees a driver using a smartphone while driving, a citation may only be issued if the officer is able to reasonably prove that the driver was texting while driving.

3. City Ordinances Are Often Much Stricter

While the state law may not have proven as effective as lawmakers had hoped, many local ordinances have stepped in to fill the gaps. More than 90 cities and municipalities across Texas, such as Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, have gone further in passing specific local rules that are much stricter and, in some cases, completely forbid the use of a device while driving unless it is hands-free.

As a result, many of the citations written in those cities fall under local ordinances rather than the state law. These local laws are seen by officers as a better and more effective option in reducing distracted driving.

However, even the local laws may be in jeopardy. In 2017, the Texas Senate passed a bill that would have nullified local restrictions on cellphone use. The goal of this restriction, as put by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, was that there should be a single rule across Texas rather than a "patchwork quilt of regulations." As of this post, however, the local restrictions remain in place.

4. Drivers Aren't Taking The Law Seriously Yet

With relatively soft penalties and obvious challenges for law enforcement, the texting-while-driving ban isn't intimidating to many drivers. It can take a lot to change established patterns of behavior, and in the moment, it can be all too easy to justify taking your eyes away from the road for what feels like only an instant.

It's an all too common story, and likely one you've been tempted by before. We've all been in that moment when the phone buzzes and it feels important enough to check for a moment. The chances that you're going to get pulled over feel small, and even if you do, how will they prove you were texting? So just this once, just for a second, you check.

The statistics tell us that this story (or one like it) has been happening over and over and over again across Texas and across the nation, and that there's still plenty of work to do to get drivers to change those habits.

What Can Change?

Although there's room for improvement when it comes to Texas's law, not everything can be solved through legislation. Change can come from simply continuing to educate and inform drivers.

One of the things we have been doing at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz is trying to change driving behaviors before they become bad habits. Since 2014, we have been proud to sponsor the Text Free Texas (#TxtFreeTX) scholarship for young people in Houston-area high schools.

To apply for the scholarship, students take a pledge to not text while driving and write a short statement about why they choose not to do so. The goal is to get students thinking about the issue and the dangers associated with distracted driving, while giving them an opportunity to continue their education.

Find out more about the Text Free Texas Scholarship.

Our long-term hope is that car accidents caused by people using a mobile device behind the wheel will eventually be a relative rarity, but we know there are people suffering right now because of a distracted driver. We help people who have been hurt through no fault of their own, and if that is you or someone you love, we want to talk to you. Call us today at 713-222-7211 or toll free at 1-800-870-9584 for your free consultation.

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