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At Emotional Hearing, Victims Urge Ban on Texting While Driving

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Krista Tankersley couldn’t hold back her tears. She was testifying to a state House committee Tuesday about her brother, Jeff Tankersley, a bicyclist who was killed nine months ago by a driver using his cell phone. “A distracted driver going the opposite direction crossed over the center line and hit my brother head on, killing him instantly,” she said through tears. “The driver was so distracted, that he never even applied the brakes … Upon impact, Jeff hit the front of the vehicle, was slammed into the windshield, and was flipped over the car at a speed of 29 miles per hour. All of this because of a distracted driver, who eventually came to a stop, got out of the car, and immediately told a witness that he was looking down at his cell phone.”

Tankersley was one of several victims and family members of victims of distracted driving who testified at Tuesday’s House Transportation Committee hearing on a bill that would ban texting while driving in Texas.

State Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), the former speaker and longest-serving member of the Texas House, authored the bill, HB 63. In introducing the legislation, Craddick cited numbers about the dangers of texting while driving, including a recent study that says texting drivers are impaired to the level of drunk drivers, and that it’s five times more dangerous (other sources say six times more dangerous) to text and drive than to drink and drive. He also stated that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash.

Craddick did note that more than 25 cities around the state have already banned texting while driving. Craddick argued that these steps are not enough, and that Texas needs a uniform ban. “A lot of people have said, ‘Y’all are infringing on my rights.’ Well, you’re infringing on my rights, to be real truthful, when you’re texting and driving, on my right to drive safely on a road,” Craddick said.

But some research suggests that texting bans actually increase the likelihood of accidents and traffic fatalities. One possible cause, as Grits for Breakfast recently pointed out, is that drivers, aware that their texting is illegal, try to conceal it by using their phones in their laps instead of at steering wheel, forcing their eyes off the road for a longer time.

Beaman Floyd, executive director of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions, an insurance company trade group, defended the bill against these concerns. He told the committee it would be virtually impossible to make people stop texting altogether, but that awareness of the problem would dramatically lessen the possibility of a driver making the choice to text. “If you make them aware, most people will stop and say, ‘I shouldn’t be doing that … Forty other states have done it now, they think it’s helping across the country and I don’t think you’d have TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) and other people endorsing it if they didn’t think it would help.”

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed similar legislation in 2011, and a spokesperson told the Statesman after Tuesday’s hearing that the governor still opposes a texting ban, calling it “government micromanagement.”

Still, as the emotional testimony of people recounting their personal experiences in dealing with distracted drivers on Tuesday showed, the issue has strong, heart-felt support.

Brooke Mabry, who had been a special education teacher, spoke of her encounter with distracted driving. She was struck by a texting driver and was severely injured in the crash. She grew increasingly emotional as she recounted her accident, openly tearing up as she described what she wanted legislators to do. “I know you’re worried that if we outlaw this and make it illegal then more people will hide it [texting] and make their eyes go down. But the whole point is to take a stand and just say that texting and driving kills people, it injures them for life. Then instead of contributing to society, society is having to take care of people that are injured and provide for them rest of their lives.”

Shannon Teague of Odessa told of her son Dustin Teague, who was killed in a car accident in 2010 at age 22. Dustin was texting as he drove. Teague pointed out that professional truck drivers, who receive more training than most people to learn to drive, are prohibited from texting and even speaking on the phone when they drive, and in fact would be fired if caught on their phones. “I think it’s ludicrous that I have to wear a seatbelt in a car in the backseat … But yet I can drive and text and not be in trouble, and endanger everyone on the road.”