May 15, 2009
The rules of the road for Texas drivers are veering toward change.
Under proposals speeding through the Legislature this week, two things would have to change before the car even leaves the driveway: Back-seat passengers would have to buckle up, and most children younger than 8 would have to be strapped into safety seats.
Current state law requires that drivers and front-seat passengers wear safety belts and that only those 14 and younger wear back-seat belts. The law also requires that children 4 years and younger be in booster seats.
“This is about safety, making sure that people don’t end up dying or wind up in the hospital because they aren’t wearing seat belts,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. His back-seat buckle-up bill cleared the Senate on a 25-6 vote Thursday.
If all that extra strapping in makes you run late, don’t call anyone to tell them, if you’re in an active school zone. That could cost you $25 for your first offense, and more after that, under a bill tentatively passed by the House on Thursday.
More than 20 cities now have laws prohibiting talking on a handheld cellphone while driving through an active school zone – a movement started in Highland Park in December 2007 that would be extended statewide under the House bill.
Since then, the city has written more than 700 tickets and spawned similar ordinances in Dallas, Duncanville, Flower Mound Highland Village, Irving, Sachse, University Park and Wylie.
“That’s 700 children that weren’t struck by cars because the driver who was on the phone was distracted,” Highland Park police Detective Randy Millican said during committee testimony on the bill.
Rep. Dan Branch, the Dallas Republican who’s the author of the bill, said it was important to have a statewide standard “so we don’t have a patchwork of laws” from each community. And Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, who has worked on similar proposals in past sessions, described it as “a simple bill.”
Watson said his seat-belt bill was requested by the group representing the police chiefs of the state’s largest cities. The proposal, he explained, is based on accident statistics that show drivers and passengers – no matter where they’re seated in a vehicle – have a much better chance to avoid injury or death if they’re strapped in.
“Seventy-five percent of ejected passengers in accidents are fatally injured,” he told other senators in laying out his bill.
But some lawmakers looking at the patchwork of laws being stitched together in the House and Senate are wondering if the state isn’t climbing behind too many wheels.
“There is already too much government intrusion in people’s lives,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, one of the five senators who opposed the seat-belt measure. “I would hope adults understand that using seat belts is smart no matter where you sit in a car without a nanny state having to remind you.”
Another senator, Republican Mike Jackson of La Porte, said backers of the proposal are trying to “save the world” with questionable evidence that such a law is really needed.
Watson pointed out that 35 other states now require all passengers in a car or truck to wear seat belts.
In the House, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said the new restrictions present a “slippery slope” for the state.
“We give up a little bit of liberty every time something passes down here, and we really shouldn’t pass as many bills as we pass,” he said.
While he worries about the creep toward a nanny state, he also acknowledged frustration with distracted drivers and cellphones, saying the two together in a school zone could be a “disaster fixin’ to happen.”
The Senate seat-belt measure calls for a misdemeanor fine of $25 to $50 for not buckling up in the back seat – the same as the penalty for front-seat violations.
The child-safety-seat proposal would apply to children 7 and younger – unless they are taller than 4 feet, 9 inches. That bill, which has already passed the House and Senate, raises the law’s current requirement, which affects children through age 4 and up to 3 feet tall.
But the bill also knocks down the penalties for non-booster-seated children from $200 to $25 per infraction, with revenue from the fines going toward providing safety seats for families that can’t afford them.