Passed during the recent session of the Texas Legislature, the law specifically focuses on the use of messaging applications — reading, writing or sending electronic messages — while driving.
In College Station, drivers have had several months to adjust to the idea of refraining from using their phones while in the car following the City Council’s decision to pass a hands-free ordinance last fall — a much more comprehensive set of rules that extend beyond just the use of texting apps to address the broader issue of distracted driving.
College Station Police Chief Scott McCollum said one of the flaws in the state law is that it allows drivers to have “several defenses” for using their cell phones while driving such as playing music and interacting with the GPS function.
“In comparison, the city ordinance is very sound,” he said. “It addresses the core issue of distracted driving as it relates to cell device use while driving and is very enforceable.”
After signing the state texting ban into law, Gov. Greg Abbott called on legislators to push for a pre-emption measure to over rule any local ordinances that did not fit with the regulations, something he described as a necessary move to address the “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”
While McCollum said efforts to completely overwrite the local rules failed, there are still changes that may have to be made.
“The state law does have a pre-emption clause for texting and driving so that a portion of the ordinance would have to be modified, should the ordinance remain intact,” he said.
McCollum said the College Station City Council is expected to discuss the legal implications of the state law and how it relates to the local ordinance during its Sept. 11 meeting.
He said until then, “officers will have to make a determination of whether to issue citations under the state law for texting and driving or under the city ordinance.”
Over in Bryan, Officer Kelly McKethan, spokeswoman for the Bryan Police Department, said “anything that can assist in decreasing distracted driving is a benefit.”
Currently, she said the city is “working on getting the word out about the new law.” Among the ways she said Bryan is seeking to promote adoption among drivers is through the phone application Safe2Save, which she said “logs the miles you have traveled and gives the motorist a benefit for not using their phone.”
“They receive points which they use toward food services, retail, health and fitness discounts,” McKethan said. “So not only does this app promote safe driving habits, it benefits the local business in our area.”
Although the texting ban may not be as comprehensive as some local ordinances such as the one in College Station, researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center believe it could still hold positive benefits.
According to a study involving Alva Ferdinand, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, texting bans implemented elsewhere in the nation were associated with a three percent reduction in traffic deaths — resulting in an average of 19 lives saved per year in states where the law was enforced.
Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director James Bass said in a statement that his agency is “pleased” to see the danger posed by texting and driving be recognized by the state legislature.
“The new law sends a very clear message to Texans to put down their phones and focus on the road,” Bass said. “We are hopeful this new law will help save lives and reduce injuries.”
According to TXDOT numbers, nearly 110,000 traffic crashes involved distracted driving in 2016 alone — 455 of which resulted in a fatality.
Under the new law, the first offense carries with it a $99 fine, followed by subsequent financial punishments of up to $200.