Tougher driving-while-texting law passes Texas Legislature

In the closing hours of the Legislative session that ended Monday, lawmakers passed a statewide ban on sending or reading emails, text messages or instant messages while driving.

The bill awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.

If it becomes law, motorists could be fined $200 for a violation, beginning Sept. 1, 2011. Under Texas law, the governor has 20 days after adjournment to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature.

The measure that passed the Senate 28-3 late Sunday is tougher than a previous version of the bill that was debated earlier in the session. The previous version would have outlawed sending text messages, but not reading them, while driving.

Nationwide, distracted driving caused 20 percent of traffic deaths in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The tougher version that passed both houses of the Legislature eliminates that confusion by making it illegal to either send or read a message.

The bill includes a handful of exceptions. For example, drivers would still be allowed to input a phone number into their device for purposes of making a call. Also, texting would still be allowed for those who use hands-free devices, a global positioning system or a device attached to the car.

Also, drivers whose job includes communicating with a dispatcher would still be able to send job-related texts. State law already bans the use of cellphones – texting or talking – in school zones, although not all cities enforce it.

Also, Texas drivers younger than 18 cannot use wireless devices in their first year of driving.