COLUMBIA — After years of facing fierce opposition, the idea of South Carolina passing a statewide texting-while-driving ban is becoming a real possibility. Earlier this month the state Senate and House passed separate bills aimed at putting to an end to the confusing hodgepodge of local bans. However, many believe it will fall short of its intention to deter distracted driving.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said the increasing number of local bans indicates that municipalities and counties don’t share his optimism that a statewide ban will be passed this session.
“They’re continuing to implement local bans because, frankly, I don’t think that they expect us to pass anything, and that is even a greater reason for us to continue to make it a priority as we move toward the end of the session,” Martin said.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, South Carolina and Montana are the only states left without laws restricting texting while driving. Previous efforts over the years to pass a texting ban in South Carolina have met fierce opposition from those who see it as an infringement upon personal freedom. The failure of the state government to implement a statewide ban has forced counties and municipalities to enact their own laws over the past few years.
Martin said the numerous local bans that vary by town and county has led to confusion across the state.
“There is just no way for the average driver to be able to navigate all those ... requirements that are being imposed by local governments. That’s why we need a uniform texting ban that eliminates or prevents all of these local ordinances so everybody knows what the rules are,” Martin said.
Tigerron Wells, spokesman for the state Municipal Association, said local leaders agree. He thinks the passage of so many local ordinances is what lit a fire under lawmakers to act on a statewide measure.
Greenville councilman David Sudduth said that was absolutely the purpose of a ban leaders in that city passed. The strictest of 17 existing local bans, Greenville’s ordinance prohibits any hand-held cellphone use while driving and allows police to view a driver’s cellphone. In comparison, both Columbia and Charleston permit texting while a vehicle is not in motion but prohibit police from looking at a driver’s phone to determine whether they were texting. The average municipal fine is $100. Greenville’s measure went into effect April 1.
“I am a firm believer in the fact that we need to address distracted driving at a state level,” Sudduth said.
Sudduth said he hopes the final statewide bill will include penalty points for driver licenses, but he doesn’t expect it will have stiff enough fines to deter texting.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed a version aimed at juvenile drivers that would levy fines starting at $75 and increase those fines with repeat offenses. It would also penalize drivers with points on their licenses and ban novice drivers from using cellphones altogether. The Senate is also expected to vote on a separate bill aimed at adult drivers. The House proposal would only impose a $25 fine. Both bills prohibit police from looking at drivers’ cellphones.
Sponsor Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, said he wants to someday see a statewide ban along the lines of Greenville’s ordinance that supersedes the confusion of the varying local ordinances.
“I don’t see it passing with the teeth that I wanted,” he said. “We wanted it where there were strict penalties pretty much in line with drinking and driving. The members of the general assembly are not ready to let it pass with stiffer penalties.”
Attempts to implement those stronger measures won’t stop with the passage of the bill, Bowen said.
“We can go back and make it stronger,” Bowen said. “Once we have one in place, it is easier to go back and strengthen a bill than it is I guess to try to put it in as strong as it should be to start with.”
Bowen would like to see fines for texting while driving start at $100 and increase with repeat offenses.