Local, state enforcement begins for texting law

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“We know if that thumb is going 100 miles an hour.”

The difference is clear, Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter says, between a driver who's sending a text message on a wireless phone and one utilizing a maps app, selecting music or making a call.

Those app-oriented behaviors are still kosher behind the wheel in the State of Texas. As of Friday reading, writing or sending a text message is prohibited, and law enforcement's on the lookout.

Hunter acknowledges the new statewide texting-and-driving ban that went into effect Friday is going to be a challenge to enforce. It's a matter of common sense, though – for drivers and for the police officers who are going to be keeping an eye on whether their eyes are on the road or on a text message.

If that's the case, "We will stop that vehicle and we will take the appropriate enforcement action," laid out in HB 62, signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in June.

There's no local ordinance restricting texting-and-driving, and Hunter is glad for Texas legislators who approved a law establishing a statewide, standardized prohibition.

Local officers are still familiarizing themselves with the new guidelines as application gets underway.

“What we will do is enforce the state law that was signed into law this year by Gov. Abbott. We will be looking for people that are texting, reading and sending messages, things of that nature,” Hunter said Friday. "That is difficult, but believe it or not, sometimes people are so fixated on that mobile device we can pull up beside them or behind them. We've all seen it as drivers and we've seen it as police officers ... They're so enthralled in that conversation they don't even know the police officer's beside them.

"It's obvious that they're texting or sending a message, they're reading a message as they're driving. If that is clearly seen by the officer, they will be pulled over, and they are subject to a warning for a fine written by that officer for the municipal court here in Kilgore."

Those fines range from $25 to $99 for a first-time offender, he noted, and between $100 and $200 for a repeat offense.

"There's a lot to the law," Hunter said, but overall, "Really just common sense."

There are particular restrictions for school bus drivers, and he emphasized the blanket prohibition on young drivers.

"That driver who's driving within the first year of receiving that driver's license can't use it at all. That's just common sense too."

Hunter cautions drivers to be mindful that, in addition to the new law, almost 50 cities across the state still have their own restrictions on the books, ranging from texting-and-driving bans up to limitations on calls: "Cities are still free to pass and enforce hands-free laws within the city limits."

James Bass, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, applauds the now-active guidelines.

Last year, TxDOT reports, 109,658 traffic crashes in Texas involved distracted driving. Those crashes resulted in 455 deaths and 3,087 serious injuries.

“One in five crashes in Texas is caused by distracted driving,” Bass noted in a release. “We are pleased the Texas Legislature recognizes the extreme danger caused by texting and driving. The new law sends a very clear message to Texans to put down their phones and focus on the road. We are hopeful this new law will help save lives and reduce injuries.”

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