The Austin Chronicle

Dying in Committee, Part 9

By Richard Whittaker, May 14, 2007, 9:01am, Newsdesk

Sometimes, when a bill fails to become a law, it's not just the legislator's dreams that die. There can be real deaths, too.

What is it? Senate Bill 154, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

What would it have done? This simple car-safety law would bar drivers from making any phone call without a hands-free set and totally ban drivers from texting while driving. Eighteen states currently have "hands-free" laws; Washington state has just passed "driving while texting" legislation, while New Jersey's Legislature is discussing a similar bill.

Why would it have been good? Because someone talking on a cell phone is four times as likely to be in an auto accident. In 2001, the last year for which Texas Department of Public Safety has available stats, there were 1,032 accidents and eight deaths where phones were a factor. That was back when less than 200 million text messages were sent annually - now it's that many every morning.

But what about my civil liberties? It's my right to take my eyes off the road! Yeah, funny how nobody wanted to speak against the bill in committee after the families of the victims of phone-related accidents, like transplanted Austin rocker Ian McLagan, spoke for it. The only real opposition came from licensed amateur radio operators, who were concerned that bad phrasing might exclude them from helping emergency services. A rewritten substitute solved that, and it scraped out of committee on a 5-3 vote.

What are the odds of it passing? Frustratingly small. At this stage in the session, 5-3 means it'll be competing for elusive Senate debate time. No matter how many lives it could save, that split committee vote means that legislators have more winnable fights.

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