New Driving Dos and Don'ts

A slew of fresh laws for drivers kick in Sept. 1

Last session, the Legislature failed to agree on how to fund new highways, but it did pass a lot of laws, coming into effect Sept. 1, about what drivers and school-bus-users can and can't do on existing roads.

Several of these laws hold that not all drivers and driving offenses are created equal: House Bill 586 means a ticket for speeding more than 95 miles per hour can't be dismissed with a driving-safety class. Senate Bill 153 rules that the responsible driver in the car with a learner can't be drunk or asleep. "It seems pretty obvious that you should be paying attention to these new drivers so that if there is any dangerous driving, it can be corrected immediately," said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Similarly, HB 84 ends license renewal by mail or online for drivers older than 79 and requires an eyesight test every two years for drivers older than 85. Currently, families can contact the DPS about a relative they feel is no longer physically capable of driving, but few do. "When you take away someone's driving license, you're taking away their ready independence," said Mange, "and a lot of people weren't prepared to do that to their parents. This is just another way of making sure that someone who shouldn't be driving has to come into DPS."

HB 3190 tightens up the traditional autonomy of school districts when it comes to buses. Originally a simple 14-line bill barring anyone guilty of vehicular manslaughter from being a school-bus driver for 10 years, it swelled into an omnibus school-bus law by session's end. Students will have to stay in their seats, and schools will not be able to exceed the manufacturer's stated capacity by squeezing in extra seats. HB 323 will require that all new buses bought by a school district be fitted with lap/shoulder seat belts. It goes into effect Sept. 1, 2010 – but only if the Lege puts the required money into future budgets. No cash, no student seat belts.

Students will, at least in theory, be further protected from guns starting Sept. 1. That's when HB 2112 extends current firearm bans on school property to buses and parking lots.

Another potentially life-saving bill won't take effect, however. Although passed with broad support in both chambers, HB 3457, which stopped drivers from leaving diesel-engine buses idling at school events, was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry at session's end. "We were deeply disturbed by the governor's actions," said Rob D'Amico, spokesman for Texas AFT (formerly the Texas Federation of Teachers). "It wasn't going to cost a lot of money. It was just about educating drivers in the district about the impact on the environment and an easy way to improve student health."

That wasn't the only transport-safety bill that failed to get on the road. SB 154 would have made Texas the 19th state banning drivers from using a cell phone without a hands-free device, but it stalled after amateur radio operators claimed it stopped them from assisting emergency services. In any case, the DPS still thinks drivers should put safety over conversations. "Our take all along," said Mange, "is that anything that distracts drivers from the task at hand of controlling a 4,000-pound vehicle, and that includes talking on a cell phone, is a bad thing."

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driver laws, House Bill 586, Senate Bill 153, Tela Mange, Texas Department of Public Safety, HB 84, HB 3190, HB 323, HB 3457, Senate Bill 154

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