Tomorrow, Texas’ new cell phone law goes into effect. For those unaware or unclear about what this law entails, let’s break it down because this law can be a tad confusing.
First, I’ll explain the overarching rules that apply to every section of this law. The standing exception is for emergencies. First offenses are classified as a misdemeanor accompanied by a fine between $25 and $99. Second offenses are also misdemeanors but with fines between $100 and $200. If the activity causes death or serious injury to another person, the punishment could be up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Now on to the nitty-gritty.
This law specifically refers to an “electronic message” on a “wireless communication device.” Now the real kicker is the next phrase: “for the purpose of communicating with another person.” This means any activity where you must write, send or read data from your wireless device to communicate with another person violates the law. Such activities include, but are not limited to text messages, emails and social media.
The law states that you must be performing this activity while driving “unless the vehicle is stopped.” Sending a quick text to your parent, your spouse or your child while you are at a stop sign or a stop light is not illegal. Once your foot releases from the brake, however, those activities are illegal.
If you’re thinking that an officer must see you send or read a text, then pay attention to the following. To be prosecuted, any of the activity listed above must take place “in the presence of or within the view of a peace officer or established by other evidence.” Yes, most likely an officer must actually observe the behavior, but a chance still remains that you could be prosecuted by other evidence. The law states that an officer that stops you for allegedly violating this law “may not take possession of or otherwise inspect a portable wireless communication device in the possession of the operator unless authorized by the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Penal Code, or other law.”
This new law has some exceptions. For people over the age of 18, you may use a wireless device:
- • with a hands-free device
- • to navigate using a GPS
- • to report illegal activity, get emergency help, or obtain information relating to traffic and road conditions
- • to read a message you reasonably believe concerns an emergency
- • that is affixed to the vehicle to communicate pertinent information between the driver and a dispatcher
- • to play music
However, these exceptions likely make law more difficult to enforce.
The new state law also overrides any existing local laws that regulate this behavior. However, some cities like Austin for example, enforce laws that prohibit even using a hands-free device while driving. If I read the law correctly, those stricter rules will still be in effect.
This law is strictest to anyone under the age of 18. If you’re under 18, you may not even talk on the phone while driving. You must park if you need to call someone or if someone calls you. The requirements of the new law are included on driving tests as well.
Parents and family members will likely want to ensure their teen drivers are aware of the law and following it. There are many apps out there to help. For example, Life360 allows you to track how many times they used their phones while driving. It also reports their current location along with a detailed weekly report with their driving habits.
On my drive to work, I take I-35 and see the big signs that often list how many deaths have occurred on Texas roads this year. I hope this law will help reduce those numbers in the future.