Some lawmakers say 2017 is their best chance yet to finally pass a law preventing Texans from texting while driving — a law already in place in all but four states.
On Thursday, they launched their latest effort to keep roads safe at the state Capitol before more than a dozen Texans who have lost loved ones in crashes that involved distracted drivers.
“This is what drinking and driving was to previous generations,” said state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, one of several co-authors of a bill to ban texting while driving, during a press conference on the issue. “I don’t even think or assume when I see someone swerving that it’s alcohol related. I immediately assume it’s because they are distracted, because they are on their phones.
“We will finish the fight,” he promised. “We will reach that finish line.”
But not all lawmakers are supportive, including Tarrant County Republican Sen. Konni Burton, who considers it unenforceable.
North Richland Hills’ Dee Davila-Estelle was among those listening to Lucio and his allies as they laid out their legislative battle plan.
She and her husband, Kevin, lost two of their three children in a deadly 2015 accident, when their family’s 2011 Ford Fusion was hit from behind on Interstate-35 by a driver they were told was distracted by his phone while driving.
“We went from a family of five to a family of three in the blink of an eye,” Davila-Estelle said. “It has been so hard. Our family motto used to be ‘live, laugh, love.’ Our new motto is ‘one step, one breath, repeat.’
“We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t move. We didn’t know how to function as half a family any more.”
She and others say it’s past time for lawmakers to pass a law taking cell phones out of the hands of Texas drivers.
This is the fourth session in a row that state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has filed a bill banning texting while driving. Several House members, including Lucio and state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, signed on as co-authors.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed an identical bill in the Senate.
Davila-Estelle said she will do whatever she can to help make this proposal law in Texas.
“When I saw my kids for the first time after the accident, which was at the funeral home, I promised them I was going to make it right so no family has to feel like this again,” she said. “If the bill doesn’t pass this year, they better get used to my face.
“I’ll be back at the Capitol until it does.”
At issue is House Bill 62, a measure banning texting while driving known as the “Alex Brown Memorial Act,” which is named for a 17-year-old Terry County high school student killed in 2009 when she crashed her truck. She was texting at the time.
Craddick has long said Texas needs a ban because many of the estimated 3,500 fatalities on Texas roads could be prevented.
THERE ARE STATE LAWS PREVENTING TEXTING IN SCHOOL ZONES AND KEEPING BOTH BUS DRIVERS WITH MINOR PASSENGERS AND DRIVERS YOUNGER THAN 18 FROM TEXTING WHILE DRIVING.
Dozens of Texas cities from Arlington to San Antonio have already outlawed texting while driving. And while there are state laws preventing texting in school zones and keeping both bus drivers with minor passengers and drivers younger than 18 from texting while driving, there is no overall statewide ban.
HB 62, and its companion Senate Bill 31, would make it a criminal offense if someone uses a “wireless communication device” while driving to “read, write or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped.”
Violations would be a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a fine between $25 and $99, unless the person already has been convicted of such an offense. Multiple offenses would draw fines between $100 and $200, according to the bill.
If approved by lawmakers, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, this measure could become law by Sept. 1, 2017.
State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said this is the third time he has signed on as a co-author of this bill.
“I’m getting pissed,” he said. “This is outrageous. It’s outrageous our state cannot do something as simple as dealing with distracted drivers.
“Our roads are already dangerous enough.”
Under the bill, Texas motorists would still be able to talk on the phone while driving, if motorists have a “hands-free device” that only requires them to briefly touch the phone or car to begin or end a call.
It also would not be a violation for a Texas motorist to summon emergency help, report illegal activity, read a text a driver “reasonably believed concerned an emergency” or communicate with a dispatcher while behind the wheel.
Critics say this isn’t the best way to address texting while driving. They say such a proposal would be hard to enforce — and would encroach on individual liberties.
Texas is among four states — as well as Arizona, Missouri and Montana — that don’t have statewide bans on texting while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Statistics show 14 percent, or 483, of the 3,534 deaths from traffic crashes in Texas in 2014 involved a distracted driver.
In Fort Worth, distracted driving factored in to 14, or 16.45 percent, of the city’s 85 fatalities, in 2015, records show.
“We must stop these tragedies from occurring,” said Jennifer Smith, executive director of the StopDistractions.org advocacy group. “It’s no longer a question of whether this will happen to someone you love. It’s when, if it hasn’t happened already.”
Last session, Sen. Burton, of Colleyville, was among those preventing a bill banning texting while driving from reaching the Senate floor for debate.
Concerns ranged from the bill violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, to the micromanagement of Texas adults. She and others refused to green light the bill in 2015.
Burton said this week that she still doesn’t support a measure.
“I continue to be against any bill that bans texting while driving,” Burton said this week. “It would be a wholly unenforceable law because an officer cannot reliably distinguish between a person texting on their phone or simply looking at a map, etc.
“However, I am for what Texas current has on the books — these laws already provide police ample reason to pull a driver over based on observable actions.”
Texting while driving bans have been proposed through the years and one passed the Legislature in 2011. But then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the proposal, saying it was a way to “micromanage the behavior of adults.”
North Texas tragedy
Davila-Estelle said something must be done to prevent distracted drivers from claiming more lives in Texas.
She and her family — husband Kevin and their three children, Alex, 23, Gabbi, 19, and Zac, 18 — were all last together Dec. 21, 2015, when they went to The Texas Motor Speedway to see Christmas lights.
As they headed home, they found themselves in a situation many North Texans have experienced: stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate-35 near Heritage Trace.
“We were just having a good time, listening to Christmas music, laughing,” Davila-Estelle said. “All of a sudden, it was like an 18-wheeler was pushing us forward.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “It was just out-of-control chaos. I didn’t understand what was going on and then everything went black.”
When she woke up — after her family’s vehicle was propelled about 380 feet, from the outside lane to the inside lane, by a vehicle she was told had been traveling at least 65 mph — she heard her youngest son say he was ok.
She saw her daughter laying face down between the driver and passenger seat and couldn’t see her oldest son.
When she heard an emergency responder say that someone in the back of the car was DOA, she said she started screaming.
In the accident, Davila-Estelle fractured every rib in her body. Her husband cracked his back and broke ribs. And her youngest son, who was the farthest away from the impact, had various bumps and bruises.
Their physical injuries healed.
But the family will never get over the loss of the two oldest children, Alex and Gabbi.
“After a year, it didn’t get any better,” Davila-Estelle said. “It got worse because we realized they’re not coming back.
“My daughter was my best friend. I’ll never see her grow up, or get married or have children,” she said. “My son will never grow up and have a child.
“Every day I pray that (a plan to outlaw texting while driving) becomes a law.”