A proposal in the state Senate would make it illegal for young drivers to use a cell phone while driving, and would also ban anyone from using a cell phone while driving in a school zone.
Senate Bill 459 was introduced by Sen. Vince Sheheen, D-Kershaw, in February and has gone on to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Subcommittee.
The bill would make it illegal for a person with a beginner's permit or restricted driver's license to drive while using a “cellular telephone or text messaging device,” and would also make it illegal for a person to drive through a school zone while using a cell phone or text messaging device when the school zone's warning lights have been activated.
“The goal is to focus on particularly risky situations involving distracted driving. It's like a laser beam focus,” Sheheen told the Aiken Standard. “My kids are 16 and a half. The last thing as a parent I think should be happening is that my sons should be texting while they're driving down the road. They're still perfecting their driving skills.”
Sheheen said he was motivated to push for a texting and driving ban after a visit from a police officer.
“He said, 'Mr. Sheheen, I was almost hit by a parent who was texting while they were dropping their kids off at the school,'” Sheheen recalled.
The General Assembly has grappled with texting while driving before, including a similar bill last year that Sheheen sponsored. It was approved by the committee but failed when it went to the full Senate.
Sheheen said the legislature has had particular trouble getting such bills through the Senate, but said some new faces will be helpful in getting the bill passed.
“There's a large number of senators who are a little more to the right of your average person in South Carolina who generally have blocked that bill from passing,” he said. “I think the change in personality and governance makes it possible. There's a younger group of people who represent the state. A lot of younger people understand that, while texting is a convenience, we need to be careful in its use.”
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said limiting the use of hand-held devices for inexperienced drivers is “easy” to support. He also supports a statewide ban on texting for all drivers.
“There's no way that you can give proper attention to the roadway if you are holding something in one hand and simultaneously looking down at it,” he said.
Massey agreed with Sheheen that the Senate has been a “roadblock” for texting while driving bans, but said he's encouraged by the Senate's new makeup.
“The opposition to a texting ban has been pretty interesting,” he said. “… There are those folks who say that it doesn't go far enough, that if you're going to address texting while driving, you ought to address all forms of distracted driving, whether that be eating, reading, putting on makeup – whatever. There are also those who say it goes too far, that we should not be limiting experienced drivers in that way.”
Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, voted for a similar ban in 2010 while in the House of Representatives, and, like Massey, supports a ban on texting for all drivers.
“I support a ban on all texting while driving because it is a safety issue – texting while driving is dangerous,” Young said. “Banning texting while driving is one way that we can make our roads safer.”
If the bill becomes a law, violators could face a fine of up to $500. Sheheen said such a law would be easier to enforce in a school zone.
“Parents and other drivers are close to the officer,” he said. “They're going slower and the officer can observe what they're doing.”
Sgt. Jake Mahoney, a spokesman for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said seeing people texting while driving is a “routine occurrence.” He said enforcing such a ban would be similar to seat belt enforcement, which depends on what an officer can see inside a vehicle from his position on the roadway or from a stationary standpoint.
“I've responded to several vehicle collisions over the past year or more where texting or talking on a cell phone was listed as a contributing factor to the collision,” he said. “Any activity in the vehicle, or anything a driver does while driving that takes his eyes off the road and attention off driving, is extremely dangerous.”
South Carolina is one of six states that doesn't have a ban on texting while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Several other states have partial bans.
Several cities in South Carolina, including Clemson, Columbia, Beaufort and Sumter, have implemented their own local bans on texting while driving.