The National Transportation Safety Board and the S.C. Department of Transportation on Tuesday spoke favorably of state legislation that would make it illegal for drivers to hold a phone, call, text or watch a video, among other things.
If enacted, the South Carolina Hands-Free Act, Senate Bill 723, would help save lives and reduce injuries, NTSB safety advocate Stephanie Shaw and SCDOT Secretary Christie Hall testified Tuesday.
Shaw was speaking in place of NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, who was invited to the afternoon subcommittee hearing but couldn't make it due to another commitment in Washington, D.C.
The distracted-driving bill – primarily sponsored by state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken – is a far toothier version of the state's older texting-and-driving ban, and it closely mirrors so-called DUI-E legislation introduced several times by state Rep. Bill Taylor, another Aiken Republican.
"This is a serious issue," Taylor said Tuesday, and he thanked Young for his efforts.
Young on Tuesday said the South Carolina Hands-Free Act resembles Georgia's distracted-driving law. (Drivers in Georgia are not allowed to text and drive, let alone hold their phones.) Young emphasized his district's proximity to Augusta – just over the Savannah River – during an opening statement.
A distracted-driving violation, according to the bill, would carry a $100 fine on first offense. Subsequent offenses would carry a $300 fine and two points.
The South Carolina Hands-Free Act, like its House sister, does provide exemptions for phone or electronics use: for first responders, utility workers and those reporting a traffic hazard, crime, fire or any other sort of emergency, for example.
Phones could be used by drivers lawfully stopped on the side of the road or parked. Dictation and voice commands are OK, too, the legislation states.
More than a dozen states have already enacted some sort of hands-free law.
Earlier this month, S.C. Department of Insurance Director Ray Farmer told the Aiken Rotary Club he supported lawmakers' attempts to curb the distracted-driving epidemic.
"It is well documented that South Carolina has some of the worst drivers in the country," Farmer said in Aiken. "For the last few years, we have led the nation in fatalities for 100 million miles driven. That's not good."
The insurance director testified Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, in late August signaled his interest in the matter.
"There are more and more people who are getting in car accidents, and if you talk to law enforcement, the people who are actually investigating these accidents, distracted driving is the No. 1 reason, right?" Massey said at the time, speaking to the Aiken Standard. "So if we can help that to some degree, then I'm certainly willing to listen."
Staff writer Dede Biles contributed to this report.