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Cars and Phones, Part 3

Across the country, states are enacting laws to combat cell phone use while driving. 28 states have banned texting and 8 forbid even talking on a hand held device. Within Texas, a patchwork of laws covers the state, and not everyone thinks we need more. In the third of our series, Melissa Galvez looks cell phone policy in Texas.



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If you’re in Galveston, you better not text and drive or face a $500 fine. Cruise through Conroe, Missouri City, West University or Austin, and it’s the same. In El Paso, all cell phone use is forbidden, except on a hands free device. Add that to the mosaic of state-wide laws which apply to teens, bus drivers, and all motorists — but only in school zones — and Texans can be forgiven for not knowing the rules of the road.

“I think the issue merits some level of certainty and it’s enough of a problem with over 500 deaths in Texas related to driver distraction, I think it’s worth passing a bill as a public safety matter.”

State Senator Rodney Ellis says he’d like to see Texas follow the lead of other states and ban texting, at the very least. He’s quoting a TXDOT statistic that over 500 people died in Texas in 2008 from distracted driving, which can be anything from a phone to eating food. He doesn’t think we can ban all distractions, but that phone use is a good target.

“As much as we can do to encourage better driving habits, it’s a good thing to do.”

But not everyone feels that way.

“Erratic driving is erratic driving, poor driving is poor driving, we don’t really need yet another law to out law a particular practice that people carry on while driving.”

Maida Asofsky is Houston Regional Director of the ACLU. She echoes a common sentiment, one that seems rooted in the Texas ethos of personal freedom. She says that a texting ban might even violate our first amendment rights, unlike laws against drunk driving.

“There is no constitutional right to drink, but there’s a constitutional right to speak.”

But Jennifer Smith, who advocates for cell-free driving through the organization Focus Driven, says your right to speak may endanger others, unlike distractions such as changing the radio station.

“The driver is aware they’re distracted. They know they’re not looking when they’re talking to their kid in the back, they know that they’re turning away and being dangerous, so they’re going to do it quicker. When they’re on the phone, they don’t realize how distracted they are.”

Last Fall, the state banned all drivers from using hand held cell phones in school zones. But if a city chooses not to put up the signs, it’s not enforceable. Houston City Council briefly discussed whether to spend $1.3 million on the signs, but council members say the issue got dropped before it was resolved. Councilmember Sue Lovell says they want to see public support for a texting ban.

“If citizens come to this and say, ‘We want this, and it’s a concern’, then I can tell you that there will be council members, including myself, who will be very open to having that happen.”

Or it could be the mayor who spearheads an issue like this. But Mayor Annise Parker says this is something Houston shouldn’t do on its own.

“I’ve long been a proponent of a ban on driving while texting, I believe it’s something that we shouldn’t do piecemeal, this city, that city, I think it’s something that needs to happen at a state or federal level.”

Supporters say a statewide ban would reduce confusion on the roads, from El Paso to Texarkana. But in a state this big, it’s unclear if there will be consensus in the near future. Jennifer Smith says that better education can go a long way to making cell-free driving like other driving norms.

“It’s going to take the mothers reminding their children. It’s going to take children reminding their parents. Who’s your biggest police officer when you get in the car, but your 7 year old kid in the back sea saying ‘Hey, put your seat belt on.'”

Something that seems novel and burdensome until it caught on an became normal.

From the KUHF Newslab, I’m Melissa Galvez.

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