On Wednesday, the Texas House overwhelmingly approved a statewide ban on texting while driving, the third session in a row where this has happened. In 2013, the measure died in the Senate. In 2011, it was killed by Governor Rick Perry, who vetoed it on the grounds that it was a "government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults." With Greg Abbott now in the Governor's Mansion, it has at least a marginally better shot of being signed into law.
That's too bad, because Texas' proposed texting ban, which would impose up to a $200 fine on repeat offenders, is a mess.
Before we get into that, let's first establish that texting while driving is stupid and reckless, just like drinking and driving is stupid and reckless. It takes what is already a dangerous proposition -- tired, distractible, fallible human beings in metal death traps barreling down roads at speeds often topping 70 miles per hour -- and makes it borderline homicidal. Texting while driving has wrecked lives and inflicted untold amounts of tragedy on Texans and their families. It needs to be stopped, and the argument that a texting ban would "micromanage the behavior of adults" is essentially nonsense; it's the government's job to micromanage the behavior of adults when that behavior poses a threat to public safety.
So what's so bad about the bill? Lots of things. One is rhetoric. When pushing the bill, proponents tend to conflate distracted driving with cell phone use, perhaps because the numbers are more impressive. Every year there 3,300 fatalities nationwide linked to distracted driving. In Texas, one in five crashes -- or maybe it's one in four -- involve driver distraction. Texting may well be the "king of distraction," as an insurance-industry lobbyist recently told the Texas legislature, but if so it's a monarch in a multipolar world. Data on whether and how a cell phone was being used in the lead-up to a car crash are shaky, since that generally requires a person to detail their phone use to a cop investigating the crash, but the best federal figures suggest that cell phone use of all kinds is involved in 12 percent of distracted driving crashes; daydreaming, meanwhile, accounted for 18 percent. And that's for all types of cell-phone use, not just texting but also reaching for the phone, dialing a number, and talking -- none of which are touched by the bill passed by the House.
Of course, the fact that no one knows exactly how big a piece of the distracted-driving pie texting accounts for isn't necessarily defensible grounds for opposing it. But conflating numbers in a way that overstates the potential impact of a policy on public safety is, at the least, frustrating. There's also no clear data on the effectiveness of texting bans. A 2014 study concluded that primary texting bans similar to the one being considered in Texas were associated with a 3-percent reduction in traffic fatalities. But another study concluded that whatever impact texting bans had on accidents dissipated after a couple of months, once the news coverage had died down. Still another study, put out by an insurance industry group, found that texting bans have sometimes increased crashes, possibly because drivers were more prone to put their phones on their laps instead of at eye level in order to avoid detection by police.
A bigger issue is the difficulty of enforcement. Under the bill, texting and surfing the web on a cell phone is banned, but dialing a phone number or using a phone to navigate via services like Google Maps is allowed. How can cops know whether someone is texting or looking at Google Maps? They can't: The bill naturally prohibits cops from searching phones during a traffic stop. And are misdemeanor prosecutors really going to subpoena cell phone records to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a driver was texting when he was pulled over? Doubtful.
In that case, the measure would stand as little more than pretext for police to pull over drivers they didn't otherwise suspect of a crime. State Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, proposed an amendment that would prevent texting from being used as probable cause for a traffic stop, but it failed, along with his proposal to require larger police departments to annually report texting-while-driving citations, including a racial breakdown.
If his concerns seem overblown, remember Dallas' now-dead law requiring bike helmets. It, like the texting ban, was touted as a commonsense way to promote public safety, but it led to wildly disparate enforcement: almost all of the citations happened in poor, minority neighborhoods.
Maybe, as the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions suggested in a statement on Wednesday, a texting-while-driving ban will send a message to Texans. The insurance-industry trade group applauded the House for "taking a step to changing the culture away from thinking it is OK to use electronic devices while behind the wheel." It's a worthy message, but it's possible to send it without giving cops yet another reason to stop drivers.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.