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Summary: This legislation will amend Subchapter I, Chapter 545 of the Transportation Code by adding Section 545.4251 creating an offense for the use of a wireless communication device to send text based communication. This legislation would:
• Define “Handheld wireless communication device” using the same language provided under Section 545.425 Transportation Code, with exemptions given to CB radios or hybrid CB radios, and commercial 2-way devices.
• Qualify text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, or any other electronic message as prohibited “handheld wireless communication”
• Prohibit the above forms of manual communication when inside a motor vehicle except when the motor vehicle is stopped.
• Provide that defensible uses of prohibited manual communication include: reading, selecting, or entering a telephone number if the intent is to place a call, operation of a device in conjunction with hands-free devices, GPS, if the device is affixed to a the vehicle, the operator was relaying information to emergency personnel, the operator is licensed by the FCC, the operator was reporting illegal activity, or the operator was in an authorized emergency vehicle and working in an official capacity.
• Preempt all local ordinances, rules, and regulations which are inconsistent with this legislation, and stand as the law in the absence of ordinance, rules or regulations.
• Set the penalty for offense as a Class C Misdemeanor and a fine not to exceed $100, unless the defendant has been previously convicted at least once under the new law.
Analysis: Distracted driving has been the subject of debate at every level of politics and government for the past several years. Although the term distracted driving references a number of factors that take a driver’s concentration off the task of driving, the term is most closely associated with cell phone usage while driving – specifically sending and receiving text messages.
Significant resources have been devoted to raising awareness of the dangers associated with texting while driving, studying its effects, and proposing policy solutions. The federal government even has a website devoted entirely to this subject (www.distraction.gov). A consequence of this high level of scrutiny in government, media, and popular culture has been to create a perception that texting while driving is an urgent problem requiring an immediate solution at the state, and perhaps national level. A close examination of the data demonstrates that texting while driving is a less significant factor in automobile accidents than we have been given to believe.
There are three primary reasons why this legislation is not necessary; it is not supported by the data, the issue can be better handled at a lower level of government, and existing state law makes HB 63 superfluous.
The Data: While this is a highly emotional issue, especially for those who have been directly affected by an accident in which texting while driving was a factor, an objective assessment of the data does not support the urgent prioritization of this legislation.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, conducted the most recent and comprehensive study of this issue and released a report in September 2010 entitled Distracted Driving and Driver, Roadway, and Environmental Factors. The NHTSA defines distracted driving as “a specific type of inattention that occurs when a driver’s attention is diverted from the driving task to focus on a non-driving activity instead.”
Internal sources of distraction considered by the NTHSA study include:
• Looking at movement/actions of other occupants
• Dialing/hanging up phone
• Adjusting radio/CD player
• Adjusting other vehicle controls
• Retrieving object from floor and/or seat
• Retrieving object from other location
• Eating or drinking
• Reading map/directions/newspaper, etc.
• Focused on other internal object
• Conversing with passenger
• Driver talking on phone
• Text messaging
• Talking on CB Radio
Of the 14 internal sources of distraction, every other source was found to be more significant than texting.
Among an estimated 2,188,970 crashes, the most significant recorded factor (about 16%) was “conversing with a passenger”. Combined phone usage as a factor (conversing, dialing/hanging up, texting) came in a distant second at 3.4%. Of phone related factors, conversing on a phone was a factor in 3% of crashes and dialing/hanging up a phone was a factor in 0.4% of crashes. Texting while driving did not even factor in one tenth of one percent of crashes.
Non-driving cognitive sources of distraction considered by the NTHSA study include:
• Inattentive, thought focus unknown (more commonly known as daydreaming)
• Future event (vacation, wedding, etc.)
• Preceding argument
• Financial problems
• Family problems
• Personal problems
Among the six non-driving cognitive sources of distraction considered, every source was found to be a greater factor than texting. Daydreaming was a factor in 6.1% of crashes, almost double all combined cell phone related causes. At 3.3%, reflecting on personal problems factored in roughly the same number of crashes as all combined cell phone uses.
These statistics only represent factors inside the car leading up to a crash. Other, external factors that can lead to automobile accidents may include
• Roadway related factors (disabled vehicle, construction, emergency vehicles, etc.)
• Environmental conditions (rain, snow, cloudy, etc.)
• Signage (inadequate, unclear, overly-abundant)
For additional perspective, consider that according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT), in the year 2011 there were more traffic fatalities related to driving the wrong way on a one way road than there were traffic fatalities in which cell phone usage was a factor.
While the evidence clearly indicates that text based communication while driving is an insignificant factor in automobile accidents, it is unclear that banning texting while driving leads to positive outcomes. It is widely thought that in areas where a texting ban exists, drivers continue texting and become even more distracted from the road by keeping an eye out for law enforcement and trying to avoid detection by holding the phone lower in their laps. The Highway Data Loss Institute reports that in 3 of 4 states that enacted texting bans, accidents increased by approximately 9% after the ban went into effect.
The Proper Level of Government: There is no compelling reason for the state to regulate an activity that can be (and is already) regulated at the local level, especially when the most comprehensive scientific study on the subject indicates that the activity in question represents a statistically insignificant factor in traffic accidents. Cities, counties, and towns are well equipped to address (or not address) this issue as they see fit. Indeed, a number of Texas cities such as Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Amarillo, Galveston, El Paso, and Missouri City have already enacted local distracted driving laws.
Current Law: A new law banning texting while driving would be of dubious necessity considering that state law already prohibits reckless driving. Texas Transportation Code Sec. 545.401 broadly defines reckless driving as operating a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” leaving plenty of room for texting while driving to be interpreted as reckless under existing statute.
Conclusion & Recommendation: Texting while driving is a foolish and dangerous activity that should be avoided. It is not, however, a statistically significant cause of traffic accidents fatal or otherwise. Simply passing a feel good measure that addresses a currently in vogue subject will not make our roads safer. Indeed it may make them less safe as drivers continue to text while striving to keep the activity hidden.
Legislators should set aside the emotion associated with this issue and deal instead with the scientific evidence which leads to the reasonable conclusion that texting while driving does not constitute a threat requiring state level regulation.
Rather than focusing disproportionately on passing a texting ban, Texas could deal with distracted driving more effectively and comprehensively through education and awareness campaigns.
We recommend legislators VOTE NO on HB 63.