On September 1, 2017, it will be illegal to text and drive in Texas. Earlier this month, Governor Greg Abbott said he signed House Bill 62 into law. This new law makes texting and driving within the entire state of Texas punishable by a $25 to $99 fine for a first-time offender and $100 to $200 for a repeat offender. Repeat offenders won’t have points assigned to their licenses.
If a driver’s texting and driving causes in an accident with another vehicle, and serious bodily injury or death of another person results, the driver can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. This is punishable by a maximum fine of $4,000 and a maximum jail term of 12 months.
The law restricts Texas drivers from texting and driving but doesn’t include ‘hands-free laws’ that were previously passed by Texas cities like San Antonio, Austin, and Denton. That is, state law doesn’t prevent the driver from using a hand-held mobile device while driving a motor vehicle in some parts of Texas.
Current State of the Law
Forty-seven states, including Texas, have banned texting while driving. Until September 1, however, drivers can still technically text and drive unless they happen to do so in various Texas towns and cities that prohibit drivers from texting and driving. After the state law takes effect, drivers may still use hand-held mobile devices to text in a car when they’re not driving or in an emergency situation.
How the New Law Differs from Already In-Effect Laws
The older law allows drivers to use handheld phones in many cases. Notable exceptions include teenagers. Teen drivers under the age of 18 can’t use handheld mobile devices or any type of phone when driving. A new driver on a learner’s permit is prohibited from use of a hand-held cell phone for the first six months he or she is licensed to drive.
Another part of the Texas distracted driving law prevents drivers from using a hand-held mobile phone when driving through a school zone. Neither students on a school bus nor the driver may use a device on the bus.
Before HB 62 was signed into law, Texas didn’t have a statewide distracted driving law. However, many local cities and towns in Texas have prohibited or limited the driver’s use of a cell phone when driving. Governor Abbott said he wanted to rescind those stricter local or area laws in Texas, calling them a “patchwork quilt” that dictates drivers’ practices in Texas. He expressed hope that the new law would “pre-empt” these prior local laws that reach beyond the new state driving and texting ban.
State Representative Tom Craddick (R-Midland) says he opposes pre-emption of prior local ordinances because doing so might weaken cell phone use laws. He says the issue should be determined by local Texas governments.
What Does HB 62 Mean for Drivers?
The new law hopes to increase awareness of the dangers of texting and driving. Driver reaction time is reduced by half when he or she is writing, reading, or sending a text. When the driver takes his or her eyes from the road for just seconds at 55 m.p.h., he or she is essentially traveling the average length of a football field without the benefit of eyes on the road.
The pros of HB 62? The law casts a wider net throughout the state. If the driver texts behind the wheel, he or she risks a ticket and a fine.
The cons of HB 62? Perhaps the law doesn’t have enough bite. Many who oppose the law believe it won’t deter many drivers from texting and driving. If a driver is ticketed, he or she faces a misdemeanor that won’t affect driver’s insurance rates or license status.
The driver may face more severe penalties if he or she is charged with reckless driving. Although a charge of reckless driving is considered a misdemeanor in Texas, it carries criminal penalties if serious injury or death is involved.
In that scenario, a driver can receive driver’s license points, higher driver’s insurance premiums, or license suspension.
How Will the Law Be Enforced?
Several other Texas lawmakers, such as Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) believes the new ban may be difficult to enforce. Statistics from cities and areas with local texting while driving ordinances in place show that police officers write a modest number of tickets.
If charged with reckless driving in addition to driving while texting in Texas, the driver faces fines and a maximum jail term of 30 days. If the individual is considered a habitual violator, he or she faces a license suspension.
Summing Things Up
Texas laws tend to protect individual rights and freedoms. People that want stricter driving while texting laws say that HB 62 doesn’t go far enough. However, police officers say that local ordinances that ban the use of hand-held devices are difficult to enforce.
Either way, the passage of HB 62 offers the potential to inform more Texans about the dangers of texting and driving. If you or someone you care about has been charged with a texting while driving or reckless driving offense, the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky stands ready to help.
Brett A. Podolsky is a Houston criminal defense attorney certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is the former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the State of Texas. As a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas, Mr. Podolsky dedicates his entire practice to litigation. He accepts a wide variety of cases, including drug charges, federal crimes, white-collar crimes, and sex crimes.