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East Texas mayors say distracted driving should be handled by state

From Staff Reports
Feb. 26, 2013 at 11 p.m.

If texting while driving is to be banned, East Texas mayors said Tuesday, it should be done under state law. But if the state again fails to outlaw the practice, some said they may have no choice but to make it a local or regional issue.

"I don't really care whether it's dealt with at the state level or the local level," said Henderson Mayor Pat Brack. "But I do think that texting while driving should be banned."

Area mayors were interviewed as Texas lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday from families who lost loved ones to distracted driving wrecks and were urging the state to ban texting behind the wheel.

Longview Mayor Jay Dean said such a ban is needed.

"The statistics continue to grow on the number of accidents, and in many cases fatalities, associated with texting and driving, and it is something that should be addressed," he said. "I think that it would be beneficial for the state to draft a statewide ordinance so the cities would be uniform."

Two years ago, the Legislature did just that, passing a statewide ban that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who called it an "overreach." Since then, the number of states that ban all texting while driving has increased to 39. And local ordinances banning the practice have passed in cities including Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.

Among Dean's concerns about a local ban, he said, is the difficulty prosecuting laws that are not uniform from one city to another.

In Kilgore, where the City Council suspended discussion of a ban in 2011 to let state lawmakers decide the issue, Mayor Ronnie Spradlin agreed a uniform law statewide makes the most sense.

"If we're going to have one, it should be statewide to have the same rules wherever you go," he said, noting that the 2011 provision in Kilgore allowed the use of navigational devices. "Well, the next town might not allow navigation devices."

Spradlin said Kilgore would at least seek a regional ban if a broader measure did not emerge from Austin.

"I would not be in favor (of a Kilgore ordinance) unless we get all the surrounding towns to do the same and match them up," he said, adding he never understood why Perry vetoed the statewide ban. "I thought it was an idea whose time was overdue."

In Henderson, Brack said if no statewide ban is enacted, she would consider introducing one to the City Council.

Tuesday in Austin, former House Speaker Tom Craddick laid out his proposed ban to the House Transportation Committee. Flanked by co-sponsors including two Democrats, the Midland Republican called it "the big bipartisan bill of the session."

"Texting while driving is not only dangerous and potentially deadly, it is completely preventable," he said before the committee began hearing from families impacted by distracted driving.

Krista Tankersley showed committee members a picture of her 48-year-old brother, Jeff Tankersley, a lawyer, Sunday school teacher and aspiring triathlete from Amarillo who was run down on his bicycle. The driver, she said, admitted looking away from the road while texting.

Her brother's body was so mangled "none of us were able to see him, hold his hand or kiss his cheek," she said.

A Houston police officer, a spokesman for blind pedestrians and a representative of the major insurance companies, endorsed the bill. Jennifer Zamora Jamison, whose husband was talking on the phone while driving when his car was hit by a driver who was texting, told the committee: "It's an epidemic. It's arrogance. It's ignorance. It's negligence."

Asked for Perry's position on the current bill, spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said: "The key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement."

Tatum Mayor Phil Cory said he hoped for a statewide ban, but that if one is not passed, Tatum officials "would definitely look at it at the city level. It is a tremendous problem."

He said he disagreed with the governor's 2011 declaration that such a ban would be government overreach into individual rights.

"Something this critical to public safety ought to be considered necessary," he said.

In Austin, Craddick flipped Perry's argument to support his measure.

"You're infringing on my rights, to be truthful, when you're texting and driving, on my right to be safe on the road," Craddick said.

<em>- This report includes information from News-Journal reporters Glenn Evans, Sarah Thomas, Angela Ward, and Richard Yeakley as well as from wire services.</em>



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