California Cracks Down on Distracted Driving (Again). Why is Texas Lagging Behind?

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California had long been at the forefront of attempts to curb distracted driving accidents by limiting how drivers can use their phones behind the wheel. For instance, California was among the first states to ban handheld cell phone use and texting while driving. Now, the state has gone one step further: they’ve made it a ticketable offense to even be holding your cell phone while driving.

The goal of the new law is to close loopholes in the hands-free driving law, which allowed drivers to use their phones for things like setting GPS coordinates, as long as they weren’t talking or texting. Now, traffic officers may fine drivers $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses anytime the driver is holding a phone.

While California and many other states have jumped to the front of the line on handheld cell phone bans, Texas has been among the states slow to adopt such a policy. While attempts to ban texting while driving in Texas have passed one or both chambers of our state legislature in 2011, 2013, and 2015, they were defeated – either by a governor’s veto or by the state Senate’s refusal to consider or pass the bills.

The state does ban handheld cell phone use – whether to talk or text – for certain groups. For instance, students learning to drive may not use a handheld phone in their first six months behind the wheel, and all drivers under age 18 are prohibited from using them. School bus drivers may not use their cell phones while driving if there are children on the bus, and no driver may text or use a handheld device if they’re in an school zone anywhere in the state.

Where the state legislature has failed to pass a law, however, the cities have stepped in. Over 90 Texas cities had an ordinance banning texting, handheld cell phone use, or any cell phone use within their borders as of January 2017. Fines range from $200 to $500.

For the foreseeable future, the cities may have to continue taking the lead on this issue. While no new legislation to ban texting while driving statewide has made it to the legislature, several state representatives and senators have already vowed to do whatever they can to prevent such a bill from becoming law.