House, Senate Pass Different Distracted Driving Bills

The South Carolina House and Senate each passed different bills Thursday aimed at reducing distracted driving, setting up a showdown over which, if either, becomes law.

The House bill would ban texting and driving for all drivers, but the fine would be only $25 and no points on a driver's record. The Senate version would ban all hand-held cell phone use, but only for drivers with a beginner's or restricted license. The fine would be $75.

Some lawmakers question how the Senate version would be enforced, since a police officer can't tell whether a driver using a cell phone is a 16-year-old with a restricted license or a 17-year-old who could legally use a cell phone.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, sponsor of the Senate bill, says the law would be enforced, "The same way that a police officer right now enforces the restrictions on driving with new drivers. If they believe that a person appears to be underage and is violating what the restrictions are right now, they can pull them."

But he says enforcement and fines aren't the goal; the goal is to change behavior, just like the state's seat belt law got more people to buckle up just because it was the law.

Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, chairs the House committee that handled the House's bill. He plans to amend the Senate version so it would ban texting for all drivers, but also raise the $25 fine in the House version.

More than a dozen South Carolina cities and towns have their own local ordinances banning texting and driving, while Greenville bans all hand-held cell phone use. "Most of the municipalities had started with $100 as their primary fine for the first violation, and then they increase the following. So I would like to have seen it to be higher, but I'm happy that the bill did pass," Rep. Owens says.

He agrees that just having a law will change behavior, just like seat belt use went up once that law was passed, even though the seat belt fine is only $25.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 12 states and Washington, D.C. ban all drivers from hand-held cell phone use. 37 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice drivers. And 43 states and D.C. ban texting and driving for all drivers, while another 4 states ban texting for novice drivers.

If one of the bills, or some combination of them, becomes law, that state law would wipe out all the local laws on texting and driving.


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