COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina could become the last state in the South to approve a ban on texting while driving.
A bill that outlaws sending “LOL,” “Where u want to eat” and “Coming home” messages while the wheels are rolling is headed to the state Senate floor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the ban Tuesday, responding to an issue that lawmakers say they hear about often from voters.
“People back home are baffled why we don’t have a law banning texting and driving,” state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said during the committee hearing.
The committee also approved a ban on drivers with beginner’s permits or restricted driver’s licenses from using a mobile phone while traveling.
South Carolina is the only state in the South without a texting ban, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only a handful of states, including Arizona and Texas, allow texting while driving for most drivers.
Over the past four years, previous efforts to penalize texting while driving statewide have failed to pass. In the meantime, some cities – including Columbia and Greenville – have passed texting bans.
As a result, drivers can violate local texting laws while riding on different blocks of the same road depending on the location of city boundaries, including the Harbison area.
“We need to pass a state law where everyone knows what the rules are,” said Senate Judiciary chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens.
The bill includes a $100 fine for the first offense, a $200 fine for the second violation within 10 years, and a $300 fine and a two-point drivers’ record penalty for the third ticket.
First-time violators can take a distracted-driving class to remove the fine.
The proposed penalties are harsher than the $25 fine for not wearing a seat belt.
“We wanted to make it matter,” said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “(Texting) is “more akin to driving under the influence of alcohol than not wearing seat belts.”
Drivers could text when they are stopped or parked, using a hands-free or navigation device, or in the middle of an emergency. Police cannot seize a phone or search a car based on a stop for texting while driving.
In the S.C. House, a texting ban was approved by a panel a year ago but has not moved toward the floor.
Not all senators seem convinced.
State Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said drivers still are allowed to be distracted while driving, noting the state has no prohibition on making calls and eating food while behind the wheel.
Massey, who headed a panel that gave an early approval to the texting ban, said typing on a keypad takes more concentration away from the road than other activities.
Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, said he thinks drivers easily will avoid detection by authorities. “They are just going to lower their phones eight inches.”
The ban on novice drivers using phones was sponsored by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who is running for governor.
Less-experienced drivers need time to learn how to handle a car before multitasking to make a call, legislators said.
The penalties for the novice-driver phone ban are the same as the texting prohibition – $100 for the first ticket, $200 for the second, and $300 and two points for the third.
“I don’t think the fines are too high to save a life,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
What the tickets will cost
A proposal to ban texting while driving passed a hey state Senate committee Tuesday. The penalties?
$100 fine for the first offense
$200 fine for the second violation within 10 years
$300 fine and a two-point drivers’ record penalty for the third ticket