May 20–After a decade of trying to ban texting while driving in Texas — one of the few holdout states in the U.S. — Sen. Judith Zaffirini was all smiley faces when her moment came Friday.
“I have waited 10 years to make this motion,” Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said shortly before lawmakers took a last step to banning texting while driving.
Senators, by a final vote of 23-8, approved a revised version of HB 62 by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, that outlaws texting by drivers but carves out a handful of exemptions while taking some lawmaking ability out of the hands of municipal officials.
The bill returns to the House, where lawmakers are expected to concur with the changes and send it to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Also Friday, a Houston state senator hailed the new state law mandating training for truckers to help combat human trafficking and said she will urge other states to follow Texas’ lead.
“We will be putting thousands of sets of eyes and ears out there to help in our efforts against this horrible epidemic,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who authored the legislation.
Abbott signed the measure Thursday that requires training for truck drivers and other commercial vehicle operators on recognizing signs of human trafficking, which impacts more than 300,000 victims in the state, according to a recent study.
On the texting ban, to win support in the Senate, Zaffirini agreed to changes to allow drivers access to mapping programs common on smartphones.
Drivers also can fiddle with their phones to change their car stereo.
The bill also allows for someone to text while the vehicle is stopped, or in case of emergency.
The state’s rules, if signed by the governor, also would supersede city texting bans.
Cities, such as Austin and Bellaire, could prohibit talking on a phone while driving, or require hands-free devices to talk on a phone while driving. Zaffirini stressed the state is assuming control of texting, not phone use.
But those changes were not enough to ensure support, and the bill Friday faced a late amendment that supporters said would gut it.
The proposal, which failed, by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, changed only a single word of the bill.
Craddick’s bill required a police officer to see the infraction take place or other evidence to prove the person was texting. Taylor wanted to require both police seeing the infraction and other proof to be established, as opposed to one or the other.
“If we are going to have all these exemptions, we need to think about enforcement,” Taylor said.
Senators — including many who years ago were staunchly against a ban but have come around partly because of emotional testimony from families of those killed in crashes related to distracted driving — pounced on Taylor’s amendment as a poison pill.
“I was on the other side; I looked at like why is the government trying to regulate my space in the car,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who said Taylor’s change made the bill impossible to enforce.
Support from business
Though it has struggled to gain traction in the Capitol, a texting ban has enjoyed broad support from a cadre of business groups, law enforcement, prosecutors and safety officials.
“We are very hopeful that the governor will take the next step to make this bill become law,” said Anne O’Ryan, public policy strategist with AAA Texas. “This law would save families and friends from losing loved ones as a result of something that is entirely preventable.”
If this ban goes into effect in Texas on Sept. 1, Montana, Nebraska and Arizona would be the only remaining holdouts.
In March, Craddick said his conversations with Abbott led him to be optimistic the bill could gain the governor’s support.
That would be a change from former Gov. Rick Perry, who vetoed a similar ban in 2011, calling it over-regulation.
Since, Craddick and Zaffirini have filed the bill each session, but it has failed to get to the governor’s desk.
For Texas, a ban won’t cure what some observers and many Texas motorists have labeled a distracted driving epidemic but will provide incentive and awareness to stow the phone behind the wheel.
“We’re dealing with a generation where more and more people are on their digital devices,” said Noel Johnson, director of government affairs for the Texas Municipal Police Association.
The bill also gives prosecutors the ability to add another penalty when seeking convictions in cases that involve crashes in which people were injured or killed.
“Whenever an offense has been codified, we find juries are much more willing to convict individuals,” Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf told senators last week in Austin.
How to ID traffickers
Under the new human trafficking law, applicants for a commercial driver’s license will receive information about how to identify signs of the crime and how to report it, while public junior colleges and private career schools and colleges that offer commercial driving programs must include “education and training on the recognition and prevention of human trafficking.”
The content of the training will be determined by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with input from the Attorney General’s office and may include materials developed by the national nonprofit organization Truckers Against Trafficking, according to Garcia.
Garcia plans to urge other states to introduce similar legislation. Currently, only Ohio has a comparable requirement.
“We all now have another tool to help victims and liberate those trapped,” Garcia said in a statement. “I’ll work hard with allies across the country so other legislatures replicate our initiative.”
Broad public support was expressed for Garcia’s bill and its House companion in public hearings, including from trucking industry representatives.
“The industry has prided itself for decades as being the knights of the road,” said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing in March. “This is simply just recognition and education that works; it’s proven it works.”
The fight against human trafficking has been backed by Abbott and has garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature.
The state’s role as a hub for human trafficking spurred the Attorney General’s Office to establish the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force in 2009, which makes legislative recommendations for each session.
In the current session, 11 of the task force’s recommendations are included in House Bill 29, an omnibus measure that would increase penalties for traffickers and improve protections for victims, among other items, and several other human trafficking bills are on track to get to the governor’s desk.
‘An important ally’
The new legislation to train commercial drivers, which took effect immediately, follows similar efforts at promoting human trafficking education to members of other professions, including law enforcement, education and social services.
“Texas has been focusing on anti-human trafficking efforts for over a decade, and we lead the nation,” says Mandi Kimball, director of public policy and government affairs for the nonprofit advocacy group Children At Risk. “The I-10 corridor is the No. 1 route for human trafficking, and truck drivers are an important ally in this fight, since we know that at truck stops they come into contact with victims.”
But the latest legislation applies only to new applicants for commercial driver’s licenses and doesn’t mandate training for existing license holders.
Texas reported a confirmed total of nearly 3,000 human trafficking cases between 2007 and 2016.
But the full extent of the problem is much greater, according to a recent study from the University of Texas.
Houston now a ‘leader’
According to researchers, there are at least 313,000 current victims of human trafficking in Texas, including 79,000 youths forced into prostitution or other types of sex trafficking.
Houston, long considered to be a center of trafficking activity, developed its own 91-point plan to combat it last year and has reported progress in a number of areas.
These include an increase in massage parlor closures, a decrease in advertising for the illicit spas, and an 80 percent spike in calls to the city’s human trafficking hotline following a media campaign.
“We are proud to say that rather than a hub for trafficking activity, we are now largely recognized across the country as a leader for innovative solutions,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement this month to mark the one-year anniversary of Houston’s Anti-Human Trafficking Strategic Plan.
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