Fight for pregnant women to drive in high-occupancy lanes not over
BY DAVE LIEBER The Dallas Morning News
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
DALLAS • Brandy Bottone is sitting around her kitchen table, talking about post-partum depression after her fourth child. “I felt stuck,” she says. Before her baby was even born, Charlotte was something of an international celebrity. One very famous fetus. A year ago, when Bottone was pregnant, she was stopped by Dallas County deputy sheriffs for driving solo in a high occupancy vehicle lane on U.S. 75. The rule is two passengers are required in an HOV lane. The Plano woman argued that because a new Texas law had declared a fetus a living being, her unborn child should count as a second passenger. This is not about her pro or con views on abortion, she insists. This is about hypocrisy. A fetus is a life. Or it’s not. Texas can’t have it both ways, she says. The deputies didn’t buy it. They gave her an expensive ticket. That set off a chain of events leading to great notoriety, something she was not looking for. After The Watchdog told her story, her quest to prove a point quickly found an international audience. A Massachusetts prosecutor was quoted in a New York Times story calling Bottone “my new feminist hero.” Bottone’s ticket was dismissed. After that, sticking to her position, she did it again and got a second ticket. This time, the deputies recognized her. “When are you actually going to have your baby?” an officer asked. “Tomorrow,” she replied. They gave her another ticket. That one was dismissed, too. By now, she had a nickname: “HOV Lane Mom.” Two Brandy bills Turns out there was a missed opportunity that might have made a difference. Two bills were introduced in the Texas Legislature. Nicknamed “the Brandy bills,” both would permit pregnant women to drive in an HOV lane. The problem here is nobody in Austin contacted her. “I could have pushed it,” she says. “Why didn’t they reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m writing this bill and would love you to rally behind it.’” It is of little consolation when I show her that her name was mentioned in the bill analysis prepared for lawmakers in the Brandy bill offered by her state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-plano. A name check like that in a bill analysis is rare. The analysis concludes by stating, “This is a compassionate and practical solution that will have a positive impact on the lives of pregnant drivers and their families.” Both bills died before they could get a floor vote. Ticket coaching Meanwhile, pregnant moms getting tickets began contacting her. She’d advise them to fight, citing her example. Two of the women said they didn’t want the public attention. They had no interest in being a feminist hero. Then there was Jacqueline Rouse, 26, of Royse City. When I interviewed her by phone, her newborn son was less than a day old. Her relationship with Brandy began with a text: “Hi Brandy. I’m 32 weeks pregnant and got a ticket today. A friend told me last week about your story, so I figured I’d try it out. And well today was my second time using an HOV lane, and there was a checkpoint set up. “The officer completely dismissed me when I pointed at my belly and said, ‘Well, yes. There’s two of us.’ Just curious if you could point me in the right direction!” Bottone coached Rouse, saying: “You gotta stand your ground. You can’t be wishy-washy, otherwise they’re just going to blow your case.” Bottone even attended traffic court with her. She sat behind a nervous Rouse as she argued before Dallas County Justice of the Peace Thomas G. Jones. As Rouse pleaded not guilty, Bottone whispered suggestions to her about what to say. The justice of the peace talked about the Bottone case in the courtroom. He didn’t realize Bottone was in his court. “I think it goes into effect on Sept. 1,” Jones said of the Brandy bill. “People laughed at that, but now it’s in the law. I don’t know all the details.” In a follow-up phone interview, Jones said he checked and learned the Brandy bills didn’t pass. There was also confusion in the Dallas County sheriff’s department, which is hired by the Texas Department of Transportation to run the HOV checks on U.S. 75 and Interstate 30. Spokesperson Doug Sisk told me of the Brandy bill, “It appears to have passed and goes into effect Sept. 1, 2023.” I double-checked with bill authors Leach and Briscoe Cain, R-deer Park. Both confirmed their bills died. TXDOT spokesperson Tony Hartzel told me, “No laws were passed this session” regarding this. He recommended I check with the Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS spokesperson Ericka Miller said, “At this time, the use of HOV lanes by pregnant drivers is not specifically addressed by state law.” ‘Support and courage’ From her hospital room, Rouse told me by text that “Brandy has been so encouraging and immediately gave me the support and courage I needed to fight back. I knew I was in the right, but not standing alone makes standing up in front of our legal system so much easier.” Rouse pleaded not guilty and awaits a court date. Bottone says that given the chance to do it the same way again, she wouldn’t change anything. Her lows came from nasty online comments, some of which she believes were from bots. Her highs came when she heard stories from other women. ‘Take great pride’ Rep. Leach says the law does not need to be changed for this to be fixed. “TXDOT and local transportation authorities have the ability by rule to change HOV policies,” he said. “I believe the state should be consistent in what we consider to be a life or not. To me, this was a bill about common sense and consistency.” Leach said he had “overwhelming bipartisan support,” but most new bills don’t pass in their first session. “We’re not going to give up. I think we’re primed to pass this into law in the next session.” Leach said Bottone should “take great pride. When we have a bill signing ceremony down the road, she’ll be there.” Bottone says, “I lit this torch, and all these women around the world were hoping I could carry it.” Maybe she still can.