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January 30, 2012

Gov. Rick Perry is not the only person in Texas opposed to a statewide ban on texting while driving. He is just the only one stopping it, placing Texas among the diminishing list of states without a comprehensive distracted driving law. With seven bills aimed at curbing use of handheld wireless devices on Texas roadways, lawmakers are returning to a text messaging ban for all drivers that was passed two years ago, only to be vetoed by Perry. Lawmakers on Tuesday said they would work to change that. Three who have thrown their support behind Senate Bill 28 and House Bill 63, which together would form the Alex Brown Memorial Act barring distracted driving in Texas, held at a news conference with family members whose relatives have died in distracted driving accidents. The proposed Alex Brown Memorial Act is named for a Lubbock-area teen who was texting four friends when she became distracted and flipped her pickup in 2009. "Things happened so quickly," Jeanne Brown said as she tearfully told her daughter's story. "All it takes is a split second to lose control."

Distracted driving tragedies continue across Texas. State Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said 6-year-old Cub Scout Brandon Adams was killed last week by a teen driver, suspected of being drunk and distracted because he was talking on his cell phone. "We, as Texans, need to raise a generation of people who know you don't use this," Menendez said, holding up a cell phone, "when you're driving." Menendez's bill, House Bill 41, would bar drivers from using a wireless device in a vehicle unless it is in park. The bills have the support of the Insurance Council of Texas, the Texas Medical Association, AAA Texas and wireless communication company AT&T. "As an emergency room physician I've been involved in the worst days of most people's lives," said Dr. Robert Greenberg, of Temple, who spoke on behalf of the Texas Medical Association. "The tragedies are worse when they're avoidable. Texting while driving is avoidable … We need to pass this legislation." Texas already bans texting by drivers under 18, in school zones, and by bus drivers who carry children, all pieces of legislation that Perry signed. State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said she was confident public pressure would persuade Perry to sign a distracted driving bill, if passed. "There is conversation with his office," Harless said. "We are confident with the input that we get from you … that there will be pressure to let this pass into law." Any bill that comes the governor's way will get reviewed, spokesman Josh Havens said in an email. Perry believes "the key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement," Havens wrote. It is the same rationale Perry used when he vetoed a texting bill in 2011.

Nationally, the momentum to curb distracted driving has accelerated in the interim. The number of states banning text messaging by drivers increased from 19 in 2009 to 39 at the end of 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Texas, 25 cities have banned texting while driving, including San Antonio and Austin. Bills were pending in five of those remaining 11 states: Arizona, Texas, Florida, New Mexico and South Carolina. Texas is the only state whose legislators passed a statewide ban, only to have the governor veto it. Few, if any lawmakers deny the growing pile of data showing text messaging distracts drivers, and even opponents of a ban have said educational campaigns are warranted. Supporters said they often are flabbergasted at the logic behind opposition to such a law. "They think it is something that infringes upon people's liberties, when really what it does is save lives," said Arizona State Sen. Steve Farley. Farley, a Tucson Democrat, was the first state legislator in America to file a texting ban bill. His proposal, however, has failed for seven consecutive years. During that time, he said partisan bickering has been the biggest obstacle. "Now, we're in a climate where so many people on the right feel they can turn down money if it has strings attached, any strings or what they think are strings," Farley said. The current federal transportation bill offers grants to states that ban texting behind the wheel, but does not threaten states with less money if they do not comply.

Houston Chronicle

Unemployed Pennsylvanians had a hard time filing claims with the state in fall 2012, due to a $30 million drop in federal funding, antiquated technology and possible sabotage, the Corbett administration said Tuesday. But changes have been made, state Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway told a joint House and Senate panel. "We feel the phone system is largely fixed at this point. And I feel that we’ve turned a corner on some of these issues," Hearthway told the joint labor and industry committee. Not everyone agreed. An official of Community Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income Philadelphia residents, said in written testimony that it’s still taking too long for unemployed people to get the help they need. Sharon Dietrich, a managing attorney of the organization, said a paralegal tested the system earlier this month and experienced wait times that ranged from 48 minutes to four hours. And sometimes, Dietrich said, the paralegal couldn’t get through at all. "A significant problem … is that calls from cell phones fare particularly poorly. For instance, she called from a land line and a cell phone at the same time. The land line call got through in one hour and six minutes. The cell phone call took three hours and 57 minutes," Dietrich said in her statement.

Hearthway said the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry bought a new phone system from Verizon on Oct. 23. It replaced what she called the "antiquated" technology that had been used since the state’s call centers were established in the late 1990s. Still, she said, the transition was not as smooth as expected. "I anticipated glitches; there were more than just glitches with that phone system, which made the situation worse than it otherwise would have been," Hearthway said. The labor/industry secretary also said an investigation is under way to determine if someone tried to hack into the system to make it nearly impossible for anyone to get through to the call centers. "The numbers are astronomical, unprecedented. There are some things that look very suspicious," she said. "State police are investigating certain aspects of this: whether there was any intentional sabotage of the system or not, whether there were computer programs that were designed to have that kind of rapid redialing system." Lawmakers expressed appreciation that Hearthway’s agency is working to fix the problems. Sen. John Blake, D-22, said he appreciated the many times the department communicated with lawmakers about the problem and the attempts to fix it. Rep. Bill Keller, D-184, agreed with Hearthway that the call center busy signals weren’t the Corbett administration’s fault. “I know you inherited a mess,” he said. “The system, as it sits today, is broken and you have done a great job … but it’s still broken today because just getting a phone call in or just getting through the Internet is the first step. We’re still behind.”

All funding for Pennsylvania’s administration of unemployment compensation programs comes from the federal government, Hearthway said. Because the number of jobless claims dropped significantly from January 2011 to September 2012, Washington paid the state $155 million in fiscal 2012-13, which is $30 million less than it received the year before. Hearthway said the commonwealth could see another $10 million stripped from its budget because fewer people continue to seek unemployment benefits. She said January is the department’s busiest month for unemployment claims and, so far, she said, the complaints are down from last year’s rate.

Doylestown Intelligencer

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