February 25, 2009
Bills about cellphones and driving

Lots of action in the cellphones and driving front for the Lege this session.

In 2007, a proposed law [to restrict cellphone usage while driving] never got beyond a legislative committee. Four months later, a Houston motorist talking on a phone struck and killed Harris County Deputy Constable Jason Norling as he wrote a traffic ticket on the shoulder of the Westpark Tollway.

Once again, victims' families will push forward. It's a tough sell in Texas, where lobbyists representing phone companies are influential and drivers value their independence.

With one limited exception -- a 2005 law prohibiting newly licensed teenaged drivers from using a cell phone during their first six months behind the wheel -- previous efforts have gone nowhere.

"The communications companies have really come out strongly against my bills in the past," said Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, among at least nine legislators trying again.

Menendez talks on a phone while driving, but his phone is hands-free.

Lawmakers have filed several bills, mainly to prohibit text-messaging while driving, restrict phone use in a school zone or require all drivers to use hands-free devices.

No state has an outright ban on cell phone use behind the wheel. But about 30 other states -- as well as several cities -- impose restrictions, including bans on text-messaging or requiring hands-free devices.

Rep. Menendez's bill is HB220, which would require the use of a hands-free device to use a phone while driving. SB582, by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R, San Antonio), appears to be identical. No state may have enacted a total ban on cellphone use, but at least one group is pushing for a national law to do so. Grits notes that the Department of Public Safety is pushing for such a law in Texas, and is also lobbying for fines related to such offenses to be added to the list of those for which the driver responsibility fee is imposed, which will surely help to swell even further the number of scofflaws.

Spokespersons for AT&T and Verizon denied their companies have lobbied against cell phone restrictions, but they're not promoting them either. Spokesman Kerry Hibbs said AT&T supports legislation to ban text-messaging while driving and has never opposed city ordinances, including some in Texas, requiring hands-free phones in school zones.

Hmmm, that's not quite how I remember it. Hibbs initially stated that AT&T opposed the West U ban on using cellphones in school zones, and would also oppose a statewide ban. He later clarified to say that they had "begun working with legislators on a statewide law that would provide consistent, enforceable rules concerning cell phone usage for drivers" and that they would be "more than willing to work with local governments such as West University Place on ordinances that allow hands-free calling in school zones".

Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, is sponsoring legislation to crack down on several forms of "inattentive" driving, including reading, applying makeup, shaving, eating and drinking coffee behind the wheel. The bill wouldn't forbid those practices, but it would allow fines to be doubled for traffic offenses to which they contributed.

Rep. Quintanilla's bills are HB356 and HB738. This CTC forum thread is tracking more bills that have been filed that would restrict the use of wireless devices in vehicles. Keep an eye on that for more info. Thanks to Jon for the tip.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 25, 2009 to That's our Lege

Some of the other bills filed for the 2009 session were HB 1158, HB 1267, HB 1179, HB 662 and HB 758. You can track legislation on the site handsfreeinfo.com

Posted by: Hands Free Guy on February 25, 2009 8:02 PM
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