New driving laws take effect this Sunday

Texas Press Reports —

Texas drivers will be subject to several new laws when they hit the road next Sunday.

The measures — which, like many state laws, take effect on Sept. 1 —
cover subjects such as cellphone use around schools, passing a stopped
school bus and protecting Texas Department of Transportation work crews.

And officials are touting at least one new law — which increases
penalties for serious hit-and-run accidents — as a significant step in
making the roadways safer.

“This could help save lives,” said Dallas Deputy Police Chief Gary
Tittle. He said police officials across Texas pushed for the new
penalties.

The bills took a back seat to the Legislature's recent battle over
transportation funding. But they could have a more direct effect on
drivers.


Here's a look at some of the new measures:

Police across Texas started noticing a small but growing trend:
Drivers involved in deadly accidents were fleeing before officers
arrived.

One reason: Many of those drivers had been drinking. And the penalty
for leaving the scene was less severe than that for intoxication
manslaughter.

“It was giving them an incentive to leave,” said Tittle.

That's been changed. Effective Sunday, the penalty for leaving the
scene of an accident involving injury or death is the same as that for
intoxication manslaughter: Two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to
$10,000.

Police hope the tougher penalties will remind drivers that helping
the injured in the minutes after an accident can prove critical.

They expect it will have the most impact on cases in which pedestrians are hit by vehicles.

“You've already made one mistake,” said Don Baker, an Austin police commander. “But don't make another.”


Phones near schools

Texas already prohibited cellphone use behind the wheel in active
school zones, unless the vehicle is stopped or the driver is using a
hands-free device.

Lawmakers extended the ban to all school property, including parking lots and dropoff lanes. Violators face fines of up to $200.

There are still exceptions for stopped vehicles and hands-free devices.

And the law doesn't apply to emergency calls.

Officials hope the new law will help curb distracted student drivers as well as parents picking up or dropping off kids.

“Anything that focuses people's attention is a good thing,” said Craig Miller, the Dallas school district police chief.


Passing School Buses

Lawmakers increased the fine for
passing a school bus when its flashing lights and stop signs are active.
The penalty used to be $200 to $1,000. The new range is $500 to $1,250.

The bump came after research by the National Association of State
Directors of Pupil Transportation Services showed that many drivers were disregarding rules against passing stopped school buses.

“Our objective has been to point the problem out,” said Bob Riley,
the association's executive director. “And the problem is documentable
in a major way.”

In Dallas County, school bus cameras already capture violators who
pass illegally. Owners of those cars receive a mailed notice of a $300
civil fine.

But if a law enforcement officer pulls over a driver for the offense, the higher penalty will apply.

TxDOT vehiclesDrivers have long been accustomed to slowing down or moving over for police cars, fire trucks and ambulances.

That same idea will now apply to Texas Department of Transportation
crews. Motorists will have to slow down or move over when approaching
TxDOT vehicles that are stopped and flashing blue or amber lights.

“We are very pleased the Legislature recognizes the dangers our
employees face each day while working to maintain and build the state's
vast highway network,” Phil Wilson, TxDOT's executive director, said in a
news release.

The new law requires drivers to move out of the lane closest to the
TxDOT crew or slow to 20 mph below the speed limit. On roads where the
limit is 25 mph or lower, drivers must slow to 5 mph.

Violators can be fined up to $2,000.