On June 4, with South Carolina’s passage of a statewide ban on texting while driving, Montana became the only state in the nation without a ban. While it took far too long for the Palmetto State to join the other 48 states and the District of Columbia in banning this deadly practice, we are grateful that the bill passed by lawmakers had some teeth in it.
The version of the bill passed earlier by the Senate was a watered-down plan that would have applied only to young drivers with learning permits. Because it would have superseded local ordinances in about 20 cities and counties in the state, that version would have been worse than passing no ban at all.
Fortunately, lawmakers in both the House and Senate opted overwhelmingly for the House version, which also supersedes local ordinances but covers all drivers. Under the new law, it is illegal for anyone, regardless of age, to “use a wireless electronic communication device to compose, send or read a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle on the public streets and highways of this state.”
Lawmakers, however, included reasonable exceptions for the use of GPS navigators and texting to summon emergency services.
With this law, South Carolina now has a uniform statewide ban that will apply no matter where people might be driving. And while it sensibly bans texting for drivers of all ages, we hope it will have a significant effect on teen texting.
A recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that texting while driving now ranks among the top risks for teens. While American teens are smoking, drinking and fighting less, they’re texting more.
Among teen drivers, according to the report, 41 percent had texted or emailed behind the wheel in the previous month. Some experts believe that the hazards of texting while driving have surpassed those of drinking while driving for teens.
Maybe this bill will help change that. We know that outlawing risky behaviors such as driving under the influence and driving without seatbelts has helped reduce those risky behaviors, and the effect could be the same with texting bans.
The new law doesn’t feature onerous fines. Drivers who violate the texting ban would not receive penalty points, and fines would start at only $25.
Police would be prohibited from confiscating or viewing a cellphone to determine whether a driver was texting. During the first 180 days after the law goes into effect police would issue only warnings before citations are handed out.
But the value of the new law is likely to be in educating the public and prodding drivers to adapt their behavior to conform with the law. The state’s seatbelt law also has low penalties, but compliance with the law has risen steadily since it was passed.
Once young drivers internalize the fact that texting is both dangerous and illegal – and if they lose friends to texting-related accidents – they are likely to change their behavior voluntarily. The sooner that happens, the better.