When it comes to crafting a statewide texting ban, House members got it right and state senators got it wrong. We hope the House version will prevail.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed what amounted to a toothless texting ban that principally applies only to young drivers. While many senators favored a more comprehensive ban on the use of cellphones to text while behind the wheel, a few obstructionists managed to limit the scope of the bill.
Under this bill, only novice drivers with learner’s permits or conditional licenses would be barred from texting or talking on cellphones while driving. Older drivers would be barred from texting only while driving through school zones.
Worse, the bill would wipe out all the local texting restrictions passed by counties and municipalities. So, the work of local lawmakers attempting to make roads safer by banning texting would be undone.
If senators had merely passed a ban that applied to young drivers, that might have been considered a step forward. But eliminating local bans would be a bad tradeoff.
Local bans are problematic. Drivers can’t be certain what the texting laws are from one city to another. But they’re better than nothing.
Ideally, the Legislature would replace local bans with a uniform state texting ban that applies to all drivers. Fortunately, that is what the House bill would do.
Under the House bill, it would be 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.”
There it is in one sentence, simple, effective and all-inclusive. And police would have the authority to enforce the ban.
Penalties in the bill are low – a fine of just $25. But, as the state experienced with passage of the law requiring people to wear seat belts, heavy penalties aren’t always necessary to get results.
Despite relatively small fines for failing to buckle up, seat belt use has soared in the state since the law was passed. Simply changing the law compels people to change their behavior.
The House bill also would eliminate local texting bans. But, unlike the Senate bill, it would replace them with a statewide ban.
Sensible lawmakers now have a chance to pass an effective texting ban. House members can send their version of the bill to the Senate, and senators can simply agree to the changes made by the House.
The Legislature is long overdue in banning one of the most dangerous driving habits, more dangerous in some respects than drunken driving. Currently, South Carolina and Montana are the only states left without laws restricting texting while driving.
Lawmakers need to pass a uniform statewide ban that applies to every age group wherever they happen to be driving. We hope the Senate will do the right thing and approve the House version of this bill.