Texas’s Texting While Driving Ban Goes Into Affect Today. Will It Make You Less Safe?

Today, Texas’s new texting while driving ban goes into affect.  For the first time, Texas will have a state-wide ban.  A violation of the ban is a misdemeanor, with fines between $25 and $99 for first time offenders and $100 to $200 for repeat offenders.

For years, I’ve been critical of Texas officials for their failure to adopt a state-wide texting while driving ban.  So, I should be excited that a new ban is going into affect, right?

I’m not.  I think a good argument can be made that Texas’s ban makes many of you less safe.

What do I mean?

While the state refused to take the lead on this critical safety measure, many of our cities and towns didn’t.  Prior to the state-wide ban, over forty Texas cities and towns, including Austin and San Antonio, had their own limits on the use of cell phones.  Many of these bans are more strict than the Texas ban in two ways.

First, the Texas ban merely limits the use reading, writing, or sending an electronic message  (it’s not clear if this just covers texts and emails or will it cover reading websites as well?). Many of the local ordinancesgo further than that.  For example, many cities like Austin not only banned texting while driving, but also banned the use of phones (and other handheld devices) without a hands-free system (like a bluetooth headphone).  So many of these local ordinances banned more types of activities that have been found to be unsafe.

Second, many of the local fines are more expensive than the new Texas fine.  For example, in Austin, the fine for a first offender starts at $200, and the maximum fine can go up to $500.  In Kyle, the fine is between $100 and $500 for a first offense, between $200 and $500 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense.

Unfortunately, the new Texas law also contains a pre-emption clause that overrides the local laws “relating to the use of a portable wireless  communication device by the operator of a motor vehicle to read, write, or send an electronic message.”

That means that for many cities throughout the state, including Austin, the punishment for texting while driving — the fines—are becoming more lenient.  It may also mean that the more broad bans requiring hands-free devices may also be overturned — we’ll have to wait to see how courts interpret the statutes.

But regardless of this, for many parts of the state,  including Austin, there is actually less of an incentive to text and drive today than there was yesterday.

This is a mistake.  The dangers of texting while driving are well known, and it is a factor in probably more than half of the car wreck and trucking accident cases that our firm handles.  Studies show it is more dangerous than drinking and driving.  While I applaud the state for finally acting, they should have allowed those communities who want even stronger fines to keep those fines in place.  We want to discourage as much texting and driving as we can.

If you want to read the Texas law, it is available here.

Lessons From A Self-Driving Car Wreck

Last week, Google reported on a new wreck involving one of its self-driving cars.  Google is trying to sell this as the first wreck involving its self-driving cars, but reports of other wrecks are out there.

Regardless, a new article from a computer/tech writer brings out one of the important issues with self-driving cars — you can’t program intuition.

And tuition is really important when driving.  My daughter is about to turn 16.  As we’re teaching her to drive, we spend a lot of time talking about anticipating what’s going on around us.

Intuition plays a big part of that.  You might not think that, but we all know it.

Some of it is obvious.  We can see a driver who might be drifting in his lane or driving aggressively, all indications that we need to watch them.  Or we can be driving downtown and see the pedestrians on the corner and ascertain whether they’re paying attention or whether they’re staring at their phones.

But it’s even beyond that.  In many instances, drivers develop intuition that helps the drive more safely even when we don’t know it.    We’re able to see a driver and, not really knowing why, know that we need to watch out for them.

Computers can never do that.  As the author writes in the article:

Yet, the dirty little secret here is that, while artificial intelligence has many advantages over a human driver (it can look in all directions at once, it can use multiple sensors, it never gets distracted), it could be another 20 years before robots can muster something that humans posses even from a very young age.

I’m talking about intuition, of course. It has a few other names — a “feeling” or a vibe, a sixth sense, or an awareness that’s incredibly difficult to program into a robot.

There are a lot of great advancements in technology that have made driving safer:  backup cameras, lane departure warnings, blind spot warnings, automatic braking when you might be close to a wreck.  And I appreciate them and am glad for them having seen the devastation that wrecks can cause, but I’m very skeptical about self-driving cars and the problems that they might bring.



Back to School — Be Safe In School Zones

school busFor those of us in Austin, today is the first day of the new school  year.  As always, we need to mindful of school zones, especially the prohibition against cell phone use in school zones.

This year, the Austin Police Department is helping remind us, and perhaps not the easy way.  I heard a report this morning that for the next two weeks or so every Austin Police Department motorcycle officer would be deployed to school zones around the city.

Don’t have an unexpected meet-up with one of these officers.  Obey the speed limits, stay off your cell phone, don’t pass buses that are loading or unloading children, and stay safe.

Auto Accidents: Understanding Texas Auto Insurance: MEDICAL PAYMENTS COVERAGE

Medical payments, or MedPay, is similar to PIP.  However, MedPay only pays for medical expenses (and not lost earnings).  The other significant difference is that MedPay does have a subrogation interest.  If you’re in a wreck and make a recovery against another party who caused the wreck, then you would have to reimburse your insurance company for any MedPay the company paid you.

All in all, MedPay is often priced very similar to PIP, but MedPay is a much inferior product.  We recommend to our friends and family members that they purchase PIP instead of MedPay.

Brett Favre’s Admissions Shed Light On Traumatic Brain Injuries

In an interview this week, retired NFL quarterback (and all around tough guy) Brett Favre discussed memory loss issues he’s been having since retirement.  Favre attributes these issues to potential brain injuries he suffered as a player.

Favre isn’t alone in these types of symptoms.  We’ve had the pleasure of representing a number of clients who have suffered from brain injuries.  Sadly, memory loss is a popular symptom.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the concussion issues arising in the NFL and in the military are terrible.  But they may be the best thing to happen to traumatic brain injury patients.  These stories have put a light on the issues of concussions and brain injuries, and they’re also sparking research that might help my clients and others as they seek to return to normal lives.

Veterans At Higher Risk For Motor Vehicle Crashes

In an odd phenomenon, recent studies have shown that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are at a much higher risk for car wrecks than the general population.  The studies have found:

  • Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have a 75 percent higher rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents than do civilians (with a large portion of these being from motorcycle wrecks).
  • Veterans are much more likely to be in a wreck in the six months after deployment than the six months before deployment.
  • The more combat tours the veterans had completed the higher risk that they become involved in an accident.

These numbers are startling, but there are some explanations.

Some theorize that troops come back with driving habits that help them while deployed (rushing through intersections, etc.) that help survive overseas but contribute to higher wrecks back at home.

Others theorize that post traumatic stress disorder, which is becoming all too common in returning troops, causes aggressive driving.

Personally, I wonder if there’s another explanation.  Suicide amongst veterans is the leading cause of non-battle deaths.  Social scientists have long understood that suicides dramatically increase after a highly publicized suicide.  This is known as the Werther effect.  However, not only do obvious suicides increase, but fatal car accidents and even plane accidents increase significantly after a publicized suicide.  The theory is that for many people, they do not want to have appeared to have killed themselves.  Instead, they may purposefully cause a wreck or accident so it seems that they died accidentally.

Regardless, these men and women have served us, and our military owes it to them to try and help protect them from these fatal accidents, whatever the cause.



Brain Injury Basics: Brain Injuries In Children

Brain injuries are devastating in children.

Today, traumatic brain injuries remain the leading cause of both death in children.

For those children lucky enough to survive, an early brain injury can have life-long consequences.  Brain injuries often affect a child’s ability to learn even years after the injury.   Young victims are particularly vulnerable because most brain development occurs between the ages of 1 and 5.  Even as children get older, studies still suggest that the younger they are at the time of injury, the more serious problems they will face.

And even when a child has a satisfactory or normal IQ levels, emotional problems caused by the head injury set them back.  One study found that 19 of 22 children with  brain injuries showed long-term emotional issues.

These problems have a real economic value.  One study found that only 27 percent of kids who sustained brain injuries were working full-time by the time they reached age 21.

Unfortunately, auto accidents are the leading cause of brain injury-related deaths in children.  Proper use of seat belts and car seats can really help minimize these risks.

Falls still account for most brain injuries in children, including falling down stairs, falling off of playground equipment, and falling out windows.  Parents can help reduce the risk for these types of injuries by child-proofing the house and making sure that playgrounds are protected by twelve inches of soft surface material (such as mulch, gravel,  etc.)

Bicycle accidents also account for thousands of brain injuries per year.  Parents can reduce the risk of bicycle-related brain injuries by teaching their children bicycle safety and making sure that children are properly using bicycle helmets.



Auto Accidents: Texting While Driving Is In The News

If you read this blog, you know one of my pet peeves/big topics is texting while driving.

Yesterday, two texting while driving stories caught my eye.  On the national scene, Yahoo news ran a story about new efforts to enforce texting while driving bans.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued several grants to help agencies enforce bans.  The grants will help pay for a wide-range of activities from ad campaigns to “roving patrols” of cars to watch for people texting while driving. Some states have already had luck with officers in unmarked vehicles driving around to spot those texting while driving.

On the same day, Austin station KXAN ran a story about the city of Austin’s enforcement of its texting while driving ban.  Since Austin banned texting while driving, officers have written more than 500 tickets.  About half of the tickets were to drivers in their 20s, and 30 percent to drivers in their 30s.  Surprising to me, only 2 tickets were to drivers younger than 18.

You can watch the KXAN story below:

Not only teens are texting and driving





Car Wrecks: Dangers of Cheap Auto Insurance

I was scrolling through Yahoo News the other day and a story about the Hidden Dangers of Cheap Auto Insurance caught my eye.

The dangers listed are:

  1. 1. You’re probably not getting the coverage you need.
  2. 2. Your low-priced deductible could lead to higher costs.
  3. 3. Bad customer service is bad, even if your policy is cheap.
  4. 4. Friends may not be covered by a cheap policy.
  5. 5. You need to watch out for cheap insurance scams.

I see a couple of these issues on a daily basis.  The most common complaint I have falls under item #1 — you might not have the coverage you need.   If you are a regular reader of my website, you know that I’m a strong believer in purchasing personal injury protection and uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage as part of your own auto insurance.  These coverages protect you from other drivers.  You spend a lot of money protecting others with your liability policy; don’t get cheap when it’s time to protect you and your family.  Spend the few extra dollars to purchase PIP and UM/UIM coverage.

I also see danger #3 arise.  Obviously, if you’re making a claim on your policy, you want the insurance company to treat you fairly.  But if you get in an accident, you want the insurance company to treat the other party fairly also.  After all, if you cause a wreck and your insurance company doesn’t treat the other party fairly, you’re the one who is going to be sued and forced to participate in the case, which may include being asked to participate in discovery, give a deposition, and even attend a trial.  It’s much easier to make sure you have a reputable company that’s going to treat all involved fairly.

A more prominent and problematic danger is danger #4.  In the past, insurance policies covered anyone who drove your car unless that person was specifically excluded under the policy.  That means that if a friend or family member borrowed your car and was in a wreck, the insurance company would cover the wreck as long as the person was not specifically excluded from the policy.  It was very rare to have a person excluded.

But now, many low-cost Texas insurance companies are writing policies that exclude a number of people, or worse,  only provide coverage for drivers who are specifically identified on the policy.  This may result in a cheaper policy, but it also greatly reduces the protection that you’re supposed to be getting with insurance.

Don’t be a victim of one of these dangers when you purchase your auto insurance.  Make sure that you’re informed and that you’re getting the coverage that protects you and your loved ones.

Austin Auto-Pedestrian Collisions, Part II

Last week, I wrote about the Austin American Statesman’s feature on the increasing problem of auto-pedestrian accidents.  I noted that this was a reflection of the increasing number of auto-pedestrian accidents we’re seeing in our practice. 

Today, I saw that Drew Finke, a University of Texas architecture student, had his own interpretation of the issue in a column in the University of Texas newspaper, The Daily Texan

In the article, Drew makes a great point.  In part of the column, he writes:

Though Austin has recently made a commitment to encourage dense, pedestrian-oriented development, much of the inner city’s infrastructure is designed to accommodate the car. Nearly all of Austin’s “transportation corridors” are busy streets that currently include few provisions for pedestrians. Even along Guadalupe, which already boasts high pedestrian traffic, large stretches of road without crosswalks south of MLK and north of 24th Street make crossing inconvenient for pedestrians, and encourage motorists to speed along uninterrupted stretches of roadway. At the intersection of 24th and Guadalupe streets — where thousands cross every day — narrow sidewalks and disintegrating curbs make for a dangerous situation, between turning cars and the crowds of students waiting for the light to change before crossing.

While his example involves the UT campus area, the same principles exist downtown.  For example, at lunch today, I walked down San Jacinto street to eat lunch around the corner of San Jacinto and 1st.  For much of the walk, a large sidewalk was available.  But further South, the Vince Young Steakhouse and Max’s Wine Dive had outdoor patios that took up the walkway.  Thus, there was no sidewalk, and I was forced to walk in the lanes of traffic. 

That’s a particular concern since the area around San Jacinto has a lot of pedestrian traffic from downtown office buildings and from those using the convention center for its multitude of events. 

Let’s hope that future planners do a better job of taking pedestrians into account and design with pedstrians in mind. 





Schuelke Law maintains offices in Austin, Texas. However, our attorneys and lawyers represent clients throughout the state of Texas, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Forth Worth, El Paso, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Kyle, Buda, Round Rock, Georgetown, Lockhart, Bastrop, Elgin, Manor, Brenham, Cedar Park, Burnet, Marble Falls, Temple and Killeen. By Brooks Schuelke

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