Texas lawmakers pursue various cell phone restrictions

| Monday, January 17, 2005

A handful of state lawmakers have filed bills that would restrict the use of cell phones by drivers in Texas.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, have offered legislation that would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

Under Menendez’s bill – HB237 – a driver stopped for using a hand-held phone could be fined up to $100, or up to $200 if the offense occurs within a school zone.

Ellis and Wentworth’s bills – SB139 and SB146 – don’t include provisions for higher fines in a school zone.

Each measure would exempt emergency calls.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, took a different approach with his cell phone bill. His bill – SB120 – would make it illegal for teenage drivers to use cell phones for the first six months they have a license.

If Seliger’s bill becomes law, the cell-phone restriction would be added to the graduated driver’s license program, which went into effect in 2002. The program is intended to ensure young drivers have some experience before they’re on the road alone by requiring them to have a permit for six months before they get their license. It also restricts them from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. or having more than one passenger younger than 21 in their vehicle for six months after they obtain their license.

According to the Department of Public Safety, 1,032 cell-phone related crashes were reported for all drivers statewide in 2001, the first full-year statistics were released since Texas started tracking such data.

“It is difficult to draw conclusions at this point, but the data probably understates the problem,” Public Safety Director Col. Thomas Davis Jr. said in a recent statement. “There is no doubt that cell-phone misuse … create(s) major problems on Texas roadways.”

Currently, New York and New Jersey have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. Maine prohibits a person with an instruction permit from using a phone while driving. Several states, however, are expected to address these issues in the coming months.

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