A message to drivers who like to read and send text messages on the road: Apparently, it's going to remain legal to send texts, emails, Facebook posts and Instagram photos from your cellphone while driving in New Mexico for at least another year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted to table -- effectively killing -- Senate Bill 17, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
There is a similar bill moving through the House, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park. But even if Smith's House Bill 43 makes it through the House, there's no indication that the Senate Judiciary Committee would treat it any differently than Wirth's legislation.
The committee's action angered a Chama woman whose father-in-law was killed last year in an accident caused by a teenage girl who reportedly was texting at the wheel.
"Wow! I can't believe that," said Johanna Terrazas when told by a reporter of the bill's fate. "Maybe I should email [senators who voted against the bill] a couple of photos of my father-in-law's vehicle."
Terrazas said her father-in-law, Alberto Terrazas, a rancher from Hatch, was killed in April after his car was hit from behind by the teenager, who reportedly told the family she didn't see the truck until she "looked up." Her car knocked the truck into oncoming traffic, where it was hit head-on by an oncoming vehicle.
Wirth's bill debated Wednesday was a substitute bill that, unlike the original version, had no possibility of jail time. It would have made texting while driving a traffic misdemeanor with a $25 fine for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.
Lobbyists from telephone companies AT&T and Verizon testified that they supported SB 17. A lobbyist for the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association opposed it.
Wirth argued that safety experts say texting and driving is twice as likely to cause an accident as drinking and driving.
But opponents -- an unusual bipartisan alliance -- argued that the state law against careless driving applies to those distracted by texting.
Wirth countered that police can only charge someone with careless driving if an officer witnesses dangerous driving or if the driver gets into an accident. He said his bill would give officers the right to ticket anyone they see texting while driving.
But that bothered some opponents. "I have a problem as a Republican giving police another reason to stop us," said Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque.
Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, agreed, adding that it would give police the right to look at drivers' text messages on their cellphones. Payne, a lawyer, noted that he gets texts from clients that are considered privileged.
Senate Democratic Leader Michael Sanchez, a lawyer from Belen, agreed. "I have a problem letting police officers see what I'm texting."
But Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, said he's "gone full circle" on the driving-while-texting bill. He said he used to believe that texting was just one of many distractions to drivers that could be dangerous. But he said he's come to think there's something about texting on a cellphone that requires more focus than other activities.
Voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Wirth, Ryan, Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, and Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Voting to table the bill were Sens. Sanchez, Payne, Torraco, Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo. Because the vote was a tie, it did not pass out of the committee.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website, 39 states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from texting while driving. New Mexico is one of only six states that have no restrictions on texting while driving.
Both chambers of the Legislature have passed texting-and-driving bans in the past. In 2011, such a bill, sponsored by former Rep. Antonio Lujan, D-Las Cruces, passed the House on a 58-7 vote. But that bill died in the Senate.
In 2009, both chambers passed such bill. But neither of those bills made it through both chambers, so it didn't become law.
In the Senate in 2009, all but two of the 15 votes against the bill were from Republicans. But the two Democrats who voted against it were the top leaders of the Senate -- Sanchez and then President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell.
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