Texas Unlikely to Act Soon to Ban Cell Phone Use While Driving

In Texas, 46 fatal traffic accidents involved cell phone use by drivers in 2010, a dramatic increase over the 2006 count of 31 fatalities. Responding to similar trends nationwide, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently recommended that states act to ban almost all use of cell phones while driving. The concern is that drivers distracted by calls or texting may be more likely to have accidents.

Research shows that in 2010 over 3,000 fatalities occurred nationwide in accidents involving distracted drivers. Further, at any given time during daylight hours, an estimated thirteen million drivers on the nation’s highways are using handheld devices. To illustrate their concern, the NTSB cited an example of an accident caused by driver distraction where a texting teenager smashed into a slow-moving tractor-trailer. The resulting chain reaction collision involved two school buses, killing the teenager and a student and injuring dozens.

While 35 states now ban texting while driving and nine do not allow any cell phone use by drivers, Texas seems unlikely to follow their example. In recent sessions, the legislature has failed to pass bills regulating cell phone use by Texas drivers, and in June 2010 Governor Rick Perry vetoed a bill that would have limited texting while driving.

Even if laws are enacted to restrict cell phone use, enforcement is another problem. For the past year, Galveston has enforced a city ordinance banning texting and emailing while driving, but its police force has issued only 20 citations and 10 warnings in all that time. It is difficult for police to see what drivers are doing inside cars, and it may be that the truth comes out only after an accident.

The family of a young woman killed on a Texas highway in 2007 won a $22 million lawsuit when evidence showed that the driver responsible for a fatal crash made several phone calls and sent or received fifteen text messages just before the accident. The young woman’s mother expressed her hope that Texas would eventually act to save lives by restricting cell phone use, even though the legislature and governor are not inclined to do so right now. Mandatory seat belt use was similarly unpopular at first, she noted, but with the realization that it saves lives it is now more acceptable.

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