AUSTIN (AP) – Driving while sending texts or email messages from a cellphone would become a crime under a bill that passed the Texas House on Thursday.

Reading messages would still be legal. The last-minute change making an exception for drivers who look at or read text messages gave voice to opponents who thought the measure was a slap at basic freedom and an invitation to police to harass drivers.

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Rep. Larry Taylor, R-League City, who won passage of the modification, said the bill as originally drafted went too far.

“Just looking down briefly at your phone — I don’t want to be pulled over as a criminal or breaking the law,” Taylor said. “The actual act of typing up a message and sending it to somebody else is very dangerous. I have no disagreement with that.”

About 30 states and many municipalities, including San Antonio and El Paso, already have laws that limit texting while driving.

Rep. Tom Craddick, a former Republican House speaker from Midland, sponsored the bill and tried to fight off the amendment making it less stringent. But he said after the vote that it would still curb the activity that is most hazardous.

“I think the main problem is the people with their hands off the wheel,” Craddick said.

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It’s already against the law in Texas to use a cellphone in a school zone, and people under age 18 can’t use a phone at all while driving. Studies have shown that texting while driving is the equivalent of having a 1.6 blood-alcohol level.

Under the bill adopted Thursday, police could fine texting motorists up to $200. People could still press buttons allowing them to answer phones and could operate voice-activated devices that allow them to send messages.

The bill, which passed on a 124-16 vote, faces a final procedural hurdle and is expected to move to the Senate.

Debate over the legislation sparked often humorous exchanges between opponents and backers of the texting ban. After he introduced the amendment, Taylor was asked how much time he spent reading text messages in his car. He said he frequently got short messages on his phone, such as “love ya,” and “you’re the best.”

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Houston-area Republican who was presiding over the debate at the time, jokingly admonished Taylor: “You’re under oath, even on the floor, Mr. Taylor.”

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