TEXAS VIEW: Texting issue is about public awarenessTHE POINT — News outlets must be objective despite a muddying of the waters.

Texting while driving is dangerous. Everyone knows that, and most would agree that something needs to be done about it. Now, finally, it looks to be making headway in Austin as the Texas Legislature appears to be on board with passing a law that prohibits the practice.
State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has been carrying the torch to get such legislation passed since 2011. The former speaker of the Texas House introduced bills every legislative session, including the current one, to invoke a ban along with penalties for texting while driving. Craddick’s bills have received support each time they were submitted, but for one reason or another they ran into roadblocks in becoming state law.
However, this time the legislation has received added support in the House and Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he is at least receptive to such a law but has not yet said he would definitely sign it. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the head man of the Senate, is also now on board after being opposed to it in past legislative sessions. In addition, several state senators who previously opposed the bill have changed their stance, some because they have had a personal situation that involved texting.
What brought more support to an anti-texting law probably was the recent crash that killed 13 members from First Baptist Church in New Braunfels. The group was returning home from a retreat when their minibus was hit by a pickup driven by a young man who admitted to a witness that he had been texting while driving.
There have been many previous incidents where a texting driver has caused a fatal accident. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has been Craddick’s counterpart in the state Senate in getting such a bill passed. She has reported that there were more than 94,000 driver distraction-related crashes in Texas in 2013 that resulted in 18,000 injuries and 459 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates eight people are killed every day in the U.S. by a distracted driver.
In the Lubbock area, perhaps the most notable texting incident occurred in 2009 when Alex Brown, a Seagraves High School student, was killed when she rolled over her vehicle because she was texting while driving on her way to school. Her family has been at the forefront of making people aware of the dangers of texting while driving. It was also that incident that spurred Craddick to introduce his initial legislation.
So, why have Craddick’s efforts failed to come to fruition in the past? Mostly because critics of the bills had reservations about its enforcement and were concerned about infringing on people’s private lives. There also have been concerns that such a law could lead to unwarranted stops and searches by law enforcement.
Granted, there are anti-texting laws already on the books. It is illegal to use a cellphone or other mobile device in a school zone and teenage and novice drivers are prohibited from using such devices at all while behind the wheel. There are other anti-texting laws that have been invoked by numerous cities in the state. Lubbock is not one of them, and Texas is one of only four states that don’t have a texting while driving law.
Would such a state law prevent people from texting while driving? Probably not. Some people will continue to use their phones behind the wheel whether there is a law against it or not. Look at how long drunken driving laws have been on the books in this country, yet people still do it, often with dire consequences.
But there is hope. Harvard University professor Jay Winsten is working with federal and Massachusetts officials to develop a new package of public awareness messages. Winsten should know how to accomplish this because he’s the one who came up with the designated driver idea, which has caught on. According to Winsten, it’s not that people aren’t aware of the risks of texting while driving, but surveys show many drivers are mistakenly confident in their ability to multitask. Just as it is with drunken driving, Winsten said tough laws, new technology and education must address distracted driving.
If cities in Texas already have texting laws, why is a state law needed? Mostly because a state law would give more teeth to local enforcement and it would cover areas outside a municipality, which is the case with the New Braunfels incident.
Our concern is that the current proposed penalties for texting in Craddick’s bill aren’t strong enough. As it stands, first offenders would be fined $99 while repeat offenders could be fined up to $200. We think stronger penalties could cause a person to be more cautious about texting.
We wholeheartedly support Craddick’s efforts and encourage the state Senate and Abbott to come on board with this legislation and make sure it passes.
If you happen to be one of those people who text and drive, stop it. If a text message is that important, simply pull over to the side of the road when you can and then handle your business. No text message is more important than your life and the safety of others on the road.