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02/05/07 - Austin, Texas
Texas Legislature Might Cut Off Drivers On Phones

Like many Texans, Jeff Wentworth has had his share of close calls with other motorists paying more attention to their cellphones than the road.

The San Antonio lawyer considers himself lucky that he has not had a collision with any of the distracted drivers.

"I've been involved in several near-accidents, and I'm convinced that in half those cases, the driver that nearly caused them was blissfully unaware that we almost collided," he said.

Unlike most Texans, Mr. Wentworth can try to do something about the situation. The state senator from Central Texas is sponsoring legislation that would require any driver talking on a cellphone to use a hands-free device. Violations would subject the motorist to a Class C misdemeanor and a fine of up to $500.

"If you're going to use a cellphone while driving your motor vehicle in Texas, you ought to do it with a hands-free device so that you can keep both hands on the wheel and not obscure your peripheral vision," said Mr. Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

Lawmakers will consider many weighty issues between now and the end of their session in May, including major changes to criminal justice policy, a massive state budget and initiatives on health care and education. But some bills stand out for their potential impact on ordinary Texans - affecting how they drive, what's in their mail and countless other aspects of daily life.

Mr. Wentworth's cellphone measure is just one of more than 1,500 bills already filed in the House and Senate. Legislators can continue to file bills until March 9, although their chances for passage diminish as that deadline draws near and the session enters its final 2 ½ months.

Proposals include an effort to let Texans sign up for a no-junk-mail list - similar to the state's no-call list - and to create an inflation index for the state's gasoline tax that would cost the typical driver an extra $1 a month.

Other bills would establish a "bully hotline" to identify troublemakers in school and prohibit motorists from flicking their hot cigarette butts out the window. And one lawmaker wants to set up a "silver alert" system - similar to the Amber Alert network - that would help locate missing senior citizens.

Speaking of seniors, another bill would require those who reach age 90 to pass a driver's test and then renew their license every two years instead of the six years given to other motorists.

Among the more obscure bills under review is one that would specifically exempt Bibles from property seized for debt collection and a measure that would allow legally blind Texans to hunt with a laser sighting device.

Motor fuel tax

Others have a wider scope. One of the more far-reaching proposals would revamp the state gasoline tax so that it automatically increases to reflect inflation.

Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said he filed the legislation to give Texas an alternative to toll roads.

Under his proposal, the motor fuel tax would be slightly increased each year to reflect the effects of inflation on highway construction costs. The current tax is 38 cents per gallon - 20 cents for the state and 18 cents for the federal government.

Mr. Carona said the annual tax increase probably would run about a penny or so per gallon, which would cost a typical driver who uses a thousand gallons of gasoline a year an extra $1 per month.

"If we do that over the next 25 years, we'll be able to leverage those additional funds into [highway] bond issues in excess of $45 billion" which he said would cover most estimated transportation needs over that period.

But if the tax is left alone, he said, toll roads will be the state's main option, and it could cost drivers $2 per day.

"The math is pretty obvious," the senator said. "It's not just a little more expensive for Texas drivers, it's a lot more expensive to build toll roads."

Gov. Rick Perry, who envisions a broad network of privately run toll roads across Texas, says that's the best way to meet the state's rapidly growing transportation needs.

Junk mail

Another Dallas-area lawmaker, Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington, is trying to do for junk mail what the Legislature did for phone solicitations a few years ago.

His bill would direct the attorney general's office to compile a list of names and addresses of consumers who object to receiving certain types of unsolicited mail, more commonly referred to as junk mail.

"We want to treat it the same way as unwanted phone solicitations," Mr. Zedler said, noting that he filed the measure in response to complaints about junk mail from some of his constituents.

"This would apply to anyone offering credit cards or sending out mail where there is the possibility of identify theft," the Arlington Republican said, adding, "I personally shred all that stuff because I'm afraid to put it in the trash."

As written, the bill would apply to credit card and loan applications, sweepstakes promotions that contain information about the consumer, and mailouts - with personal information - that encourage the purchase of property, goods or services.

If the bill were to become law, consumers could get their address on the list for three years for $3 per household. Companies that mail to consumers on the list would be subject to fines of $1,000 to $3,000 per violation.

Along the same lines, Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, is trying to protect college students in Texas from being bombarded by credit card offers, particularly those that can quickly pile on high interest and late payment charges.

His bill would restrict credit card companies to one promotional location on campus and ban giveaways to students. Companies also would have to provide information and credit counseling for students who apply.

"We want to make sure they are somewhat educated and aren't applying for a credit card just to get a free T-shirt or to be able to go out to a nice restaurant or bar that night," Mr. Branch said.

"College kids are vulnerable because they don't have an income and they may want to maintain a certain lifestyle. I'm just trying to make sure they have a fighting chance and understand what they're getting into."

Senior citizen driving

Mr. Branch and Mr. Carona are also sponsoring legislation that would require 90-year-old drivers to renew their license by passing both a vision and a driving test. The new license would have to be renewed every two years.

"We're trying to balance the need for independence for many of our senior citizens with their safety and safety of others on the road," Mr. Branch said. "As the senses diminish with age, we need to make sure senior citizens are still capable of driving."

Mr. Carona cited the case of his 73-year-old mother who suffers from diabetes and is "all but completely blind." Yet she recently renewed her license by mail.

"Age 90 seems like a very conservative point to make sure a driver has the physical ability to operate a car and the right state of health to be behind the wheel," he said. "The idea is not to take older drivers off the road, just to make sure they are proficient enough to drive safely."

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