New Texas Law On Texting and Driving: What You Need to KnowAugust 25, 2017
On September 1, 2017, a new ban on texting while driving takes effect in Texas.1 This makes Texas among the 48 U.S. states that prohibit texting or sending messages while driving.2
The texting and driving ban in Texas has been one response to the devastating impacts of distracted driving. In fact, in 2016 alone, Texas saw about 500 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries from crashes caused by distracted drivers. Lawmakers and safety authorities are now hoping the new ban will curb distracted driving, prevent accidents and save lives.
Important Answers about the New Texas Law on Texting While Driving (House Bill 62)
Clarifying the details of this new law, the following presents answers to frequently asked questions about the texting while driving ban in Texas.
What Does the Texas Law Actually Ban?
According to House Bill 62 (H.B. 62):1
- Drivers who are 18 or over may not use cellphones or other wireless communication devices to “read, write, or send an electronic message” while the vehicle is moving. The ban, however, does not apply if the vehicle is stopped.3 Additionally, the law provides exceptions for the use of cellphones and other wireless devices in an emergency or in the event the driver reasonably believes the circumstances constitute an emergency.
- Drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using a phone or wireless communication devices at any point while operating a motor vehicle except in the case of an emergency or if licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Please note that an “electronic message” is defined as any data read from or entered into the phone or device for the purpose of communicating with another individual. As such, this includes both texting and emailing.
What Am I Still Allowed to Do on My Phone While Driving?
Essentially, you can do anything except for read, write and/or send a message. As a result, the following are NOT currently prohibited by the new Texas texting while driving ban:
- Making phone calls
- Using the Internet
- Using GPS
- Playing or changing music
- Using other applications that do not involve holding the device to read, write or send electronic messages.
Do I Need to Get a Hands-Free Device?
The new ban does NOT necessarily mean that you need to get a hands-free device.
Hands-free devices, which can be permanently installed in or on a wireless communication device or in a motor vehicle, allow drivers to use a wireless communication device without using either hand (except to activate or deactivate a function of the wireless communication device or hands-free device). As such, hands-free devices can include (but may not be limited to):
- Speakerphone capability
- Voice-operated technology
- Push-to-talk functions
- Telephone attachments
- Other functionality or equipment.
Given that the actions listed in previous answer (e.g, talking on the phone, using Internet/GPS, etc.) are still permitted under the law, you can still legally use your hand-held device(s) for non-prohibited actions.
However, please be aware that:
- Use of hand-held devices is prohibited in school crossing zones and on public school property during the times when the reduced speed limit applies.
- Using a hands-free device (in conjunction with a hand-held device) can be an affirmative defense to a citation for texting while driving (or otherwise violating the new Texas law). For instance, using voice-operated technology to have a message read, composed, or sent may serve as a defense to a texting-while-driving citation.
Can Police Pull Me Over If They Think I Was Texting?
Yes. The Texas ban on texting while driving is a primary (not secondary) law. This means that police can pull over and ticket any driver believed to have been reading, writing, or sending a message while the vehicle was moving.
However, it does NOT mean that:
- Police can automatically force you to hand over your phone to prove that you were texting (or otherwise violating the law) – There must be probable cause under the Texas Penal Code or Code of Criminal Procedure in order for police to seize your phone and/or other wireless communication devices.
- You are automatically ‘guilty’ of the offense – If you are issued a ticket for texting while driving, you have the right to appear in court with your phone records and argue that the ticket was erroneously issued.
What Are the Penalties for Texting and Driving in Texas?
The penalties for texting and driving in Texas will vary according to whether a driver has any priors and whether the offense harms anyone else. Specifically:
- A first offense is misdemeanor, punishable by fines of $25 to $99.
- Subsequent offenses are also misdemeanors, punishable by fines of $100 to $200.
- If texting while driving causes an accident resulting in injuries or death, the offense can be elevated to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to $4,000 in fines and up to one year in jail.
At this time, these penalties do not include adding points to an offender’s driving record.
The New Texting and Driving Ban in Texas: Criticism & Concerns
While this new Texas law establishes a statewide ban on texting while driving, critics have pointed out that:
- At least 90 cities in Texas already enforced local texting-and-driving ordinances.
- In some cases, the local ordinances were stricter (than the new ban), making them easier to enforce.
For example, in Austin prior to September 1:
- Local ordinances outlawed any use of a cellphone while driving – Since the new state law preempts local rules, however, the new ban actually provides more opportunities for drivers to use their cellphones, increasing the potential for distracted driving.
- Police could write a citation after simply observing a driver using a cellphone for any purpose – They must use discretion to try and determine whether a driver is unlawfully texting or legally using their GPS, making it more challenging to enforce the new law.
It remains to be seen whether drivers will heed the new Texas law – and whether that will reduce the incidence of distracted driving crashes, injuries and deaths in Texas.
1: Complete text of the new Texas ban on texting while driving (H.B. 62)
2: According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
3: According to new language in the Texas Transportation Code