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Why SC might ban you from picking up your phone at all while driving

Here are some of SC’s most unusual driving laws

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It’s been a year and a half since Joe Lark’s son-in-law Jeff Pierce was struck by a car and killed near their Inman home. Lark blames the driver’s phone.

“An eyewitness said (the driver) had her phone to her ear and appeared to be talking,” Lark told a panel of S.C. legislators Tuesday, “which is not illegal in South Carolina.”

Lark was one of several witnesses who testified in support of a proposal before the Legislature to make it illegal for a driver to use their cellphone while driving.

State law now bans drivers from texting while driving. But state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, thinks that ban is fairly toothless.

“It’s a secondary fine, so (police) have to stop them for something else,” Taylor said. “Then they have to admit guilt to get the ticket ... They can say, ‘I was using my GPS.’ ”

Taylor’s bill, introduced last year, would prohibit drivers from handling their phone — or any other electronic device, including a computer tablet — while on the road, even if they are stopped at a stoplight.

If a phone is used, for making a call or to consult GPS, the driver must use a hands-free device or one that does not require pushing “more than a single button” to activate it.

The S.C. Department of Public Safety estimates 62 of the 1,015 people killed on S.C. roads in 2018 died due to “distracted driving.”

Distracted drivers have a monetary impact on the state as well.

State Insurance Commissioner Ray Farmer told lawmakers that distracted driving has contributed to an average 10 percent increase in insurance premiums in recent years.

Georgia state Rep. John Carson, R-Cobb, told S.C. lawmakers that insurance concerns led him to introduce a similar bill in Georgia last year that passed that state’s Legislature.

Of the 15 other states with similar phone bans, 13 saw at least a 16 percent decrease in fatalities since their laws went into effect, he said.

But state Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, worried if going hands-free is a realistic option for the people in his district.

“The majority drive older model cars,” Brown said. “They don’t have a hands-free phone. If there’s an emergency where they have to use their phone or they need directions or they get a call from their children, what would law enforcement do to them if they saw them?”

But Carson said the S.C. law allows for emergency use of a phone, adding other options exist for drivers to use their phones.

“You can go and buy a hands-free bracket for as little as four dollars with a plastic clamp,” Carson said. “Or you can prop it up in your cupholder if you want, and don’t pay anything.”

Taylor’s bill proposed a $25 fine for use of a phone.

However, lawmakers Tuesday approved a motion by state Rep. Tim McGinnis, R-Horry, to make the penalty $200. The panel then sent the bill to the full House Education and Public Works Committee for consideration. If it passes there, the bill will go to the full House.

“I would prefer to criminalize it,” Taylor said afterward. “But you have to understand where you are and be practical about the steps forward to get it done.”

The Lark family would be happy with any penalty.

Shirley Lark read a letter from her daughter, Renee Pierce, about the impact her husband’s death had on their young children and apologizing for not being able to make it to Tuesday’s hearing.

“But,” she wrote, “someone else made the decision to make me a single mother.”

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Bristow Marchant covers politics and government for The State, with more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.


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