As authorities geared up for the start of Labor Day weekend, a new statewide law banning texting and driving took effect Friday, Sept. 1.
The new law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last month will set a statewide precedent over local municipalities’ various laws on the issue. The law targets people who are on their cellphones reading, writing or sending a text message while driving, but doesn’t apply to stopped vehicles.
Violators will be charged with a misdemeanor offense. First-time offenders could be fined up to $99 or $200 for a repeat offense.
For those under 18 years of age, Texas law already bans all cell phone use while driving, including hands-free, except in the case of emergencies. Additionally, drivers are currently banned from texting and using hand-held cellular devices while driving in school zones. School bus operators also are prohibited from using cellphones while driving if children are present.
While it comes down to officer discretion, some officers may offer a grace period for first time offenders for educating drivers about the new law, said Lt. Bobby Vernengo of Cedar Park Police.
“It’s such a new law, I would say the person caught texting would be getting a warning today to make sure they understand,” he said. “We want to educate people. However, we document warnings, and we can check when they were issued.”
Supporters hope the new law will make roads safer.
“One in five crashes in Texas is caused by distracted driving,” said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. “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.”
Part of the inspiration for the new law stems from statistics linking fatal accidents to texting while driving. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 1 in 5 crashes involves driver distraction. Another study from Texas A&M found such bans save, on average, 19 deaths per year and reduce crash-related hospitalizations.
Using a cellphone to report an emergency while driving is allowed under the law. Music and GPS apps are also allowed, but drivers with their heads down looking at their phones will catch the attention of police, authorities said.
“It’s a matter of the officer being able to see someone texting clearly,” Venengo said. “It can be challenging. Sometimes you can tell exactly what’s happening, or there’s sunlight in your eyes and there’s tinted windows and it can be difficult. But we will make sure we will enforce it.”
As an alternative to texting, officials suggest using hands-free technology, like Bluetooth headsets or apps such as the iPhone’s Siri that reads text out loud.
Last year, 109,658 traffic crashes in Texas involved distracted driving. Those crashes resulted in 455 deaths and 3,087 serious injuries.
Texas is the 47th state to ban texting and driving.