In 2018, there were 540,561 crashes on Texas roadways. Of that number, 95,572 – or 18 percent – were caused by distracted driving, resulting in 394 deaths and 2,340 serious injures, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Those sobering numbers come just a year after the state outlawed texting and driving, suggesting that drivers are not changing their behaviors. In fact, Texas launched a Heads Up campaign this summer in an effort to educate Texans on the dangers of distracted driving and raise awareness about the new law.
Texting While Driving Ban
The texting while driving ban went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017. Basically, it made it illegal to read, write or send a text while driving in Texas. The law also covers emailing, instant messaging and posting to social media.
Section 545.4251 of Transportation Code prohibits the use of a portable wireless communication device to “read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped.” Notice the “vehicle is stopped language.” This means, for example, that it would not be illegal to read a text while stopped at a stoplight.
Electronic messages include texts, emails, and other communications that are read from or entered into a wireless communication device for the purpose of communicating with another person.
A wireless communication device is any device that uses a commercial mobile service that connects mobile devices for profit.
Drivers face a fine of $25 to $99 for a first offense. Repeat offenders face penalties ranging from $100 to $200.
Texting While Driving Under 18
Transportation Code Section 545.424 prohibits any person under the age of 18 from operating a motor vehicle while using a wireless communication device. No exception is made for vehicles that are stopped. In other words, it’s illegal for teens to use any kind of wireless communication device while behind the wheel, including making calls or texts on hands-free devices.
A first offense results in a fine of $25 to $99. Repeat offenders face penalties ranging from $100 to $200.
Texting While Driving Causing Death or Serious Bodily Injury
Any driver convicted of texting while driving who causes death or serious bodily faces a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
What Defenses Apply to Using a Wireless Communication Device While You are Driving?
Motorists can still use their phones to report a crime, operate GPS or play music. The following are exceptions to the texting-while-driving ban:
1. You used a hands-free device.
2. You were using your GPS.
3. You were reporting illegal activity.
4. You were summoning help in an emergency.
5. You were using information regarding road conditions or traffic (like the Waze App).
6. You were reading a message from a person reasonably believed to be communicating about an emergency.
7. You were using a music app.
8. You were stopped.
An officer cannot arrest you for using your wireless communication device, but it may justify a stop in which case the officer discovers another reason to arrest you.
Problems with the Texting While Driving Ban
1. Under the new law, officers are able to stop anyone who is using their cell phone in their cars. Remember, many arrests occur as the result of a routine traffic stop. Driving while using your cell phone for anything gives an officer the ability to say they believed they had reasonable suspicion that you were texting. Think about that for a second: The fact that you were not actually texting is unlikely to result in the stop being invalid. All the officer needs is reasonable suspicion that an offense took place to stop you, not the actual commission of the offense.
2. In an effort to make their case, municipal prosecutors may have to subpoena phone records in an effort to show the driver was texting. Police officers are prohibited from taking or inspecting phones “unless authorized by the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Penal Code, or other law.” Officers will not be able to force you to give them your phone or seize your phone for only a violation of the texting and driving statute.
3. To prove the actual offense, a police officer will have to prove you were using your cell phone unlawfully for reading, writing, or sending an electronic message – and not for an approved purpose such as accessing GPS or a music app. And while a subpoenaed phone log may be helpful for the prosecution, they still may not need it. Remember, all the prosecutors have to do is convince the judge or jury that you were reading an electronic message.