South Carolina

SC’s texting-and-driving law is weak, unenforceable. But a crackdown could be coming

FILE: Sixteen-year-old Thomas Morana trys hard stay on the road while trying to send a text. "This was terrible! I almost died!" says Morana. AT&T hopes its public awareness campaign, 'It Can Wait', will help put the brakes on texting while driving.
FILE: Sixteen-year-old Thomas Morana trys hard stay on the road while trying to send a text. "This was terrible! I almost died!" says Morana. AT&T hopes its public awareness campaign, 'It Can Wait', will help put the brakes on texting while driving. kkfoster@thestate.com

Now might be a good time to get out of the habit of texting while driving.

S.C. lawmakers Wednesday began considering a proposal that would ensure officers write more tickets for texting while driving, carrying fines that are as much as 12 times more expensive than under current state law.

The stricter rules are needed to address an “epidemic” of distracted driving that takes thousands of U.S. lives each year, by a conservative estimate, AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Tiffany Wright testified before a House panel Wednesday.

“It’s become more of a traffic-safety issue than drunk driving,” Wright said. “To change behavior, you have to create stiffer penalties for drivers. We’ve seen this, historically, with seat-belt legislation and drunk driving.”

South Carolina already bans texting while driving. But the $25-per-offense fine isn’t discouraging the habit.

Also, police officers say they aren’t writing tickets because they can’t prove drivers are texting, state Rep. Bill Taylor told a House panel Wednesday.

As a result, the Aiken Republican said, police issue only about 1,300 texting-while-driving tickets each year in a state with nearly 5 million residents.

“You could write 1,300 a day in Columbia,” Taylor said.

Taylor has proposed raising the fine to $100 for the first offense. Second and subsequent offenses would carry a $300 fine and two points on the driver’s license, increasing their insurance costs.

Taylor also wants to expand the law so officers can issue a ticket any time they see a phone in a driver’s hand, including when the driver is making or answering a call.

S.C. law now bans only texting, so anyone can get out of a ticket as long as they claim to be using their phone for something else, Taylor said. “It’s not enforceable.”

Two families testified Wednesday about loved ones who were killed by drivers on their phones.

Renee Pierce’s husband, Jeff Pierce, was killed last year when a car, moving at 62 mph, slammed into the bicycle he was riding. The Inman resident said Wednesday she hopes a tougher law would spare other families the grief that she and her two sons have suffered.

“A $25 fine to a teenager is five lattes at Starbucks,” Pierce said.

More than a dozen other states have laws banning drivers from holding phones, and Georgia is considering a similar bill this spring, Taylor said.

Taylor’s proposal also would ban using your phone while stopped at a red light or stop sign, currently allowed under state law.

That’s important, AAA’s Wright said, because research shows the human brain remains distracted for about 27 seconds after receiving a text message. “Your mind is still thinking about that” as you drive, she said.

Taylor said his bill would not stop drivers from using a hands-free or Bluetooth device to talk over the phone. But it would prohibit drivers from using GPS on their phones, something Taylor said lawmakers would need to iron out.

The House panel did not vote on the proposal.

Legislators said they want to gather more testimony before sending the proposal to a full committee. The proposal would have to pass there, and in the full House and Senate, to have a chance of becoming law.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

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