Scoppe: When highway safety crashes into legislative roadblocks

Associate EditorApril 8, 2014 

— HERE’S WHAT we know about texting while driving:

It’s stupid and it’s deadly, and there are a ton of statistics that back that up, but citing statistics isn’t going to do a thing to convince anyone who doesn’t already understand it’s dangerous. That’s because you’d have to be a self-absorbed lunatic to carry on a thumb-driven conversation on a tiny screen with even tinier keys while hurtling down the highway at 70 mph in a two-ton projectile.

Either that or an addict, which apparently is what we’ve raised an entire generation of young drivers to be — along with an increasing number of people who are old enough to know better.

It’s practically incomprehensible that we would need to write a law to tell people they shouldn’t do this. And yet we clearly do, because this insanely dangerous practice is proliferating. Exponentially, it seems.

Laws do little to deter determined law-breakers, but by spelling out the accepted norms in a society, they do a great deal to influence the behavior of the overwhelming majority of people, who obey the law simply because it is the law.

South Carolina is one of just four states with no limitations on texting while driving — not even for the kids who are so inexperienced (and, not coincidentally, the most addicted) that we limit the number of passengers they can have in the car with them and prohibit them from driving after dark.

This, and the political culture of which it is a result, is the reason we have some of the deadliest roads in the nation.

The problem is not that most legislators favor texting while driving. Most legislators do not favor texting while driving, or at least they aren’t willing to vote as though they do. House and Senate committees have approved very modest anti-texting bills — which is to say bills that outlaw the practice but make it difficult for police to enforce. But those bills are stuck on the contested calendar in each body, which makes it more difficult for the majority to pass them.

This is not an insurmountable obstacle in the House, where there are 16 bills on the contested calendar and where representatives can knock out a half-dozen of them in a single afternoon. It is a different matter in the Senate, where there’s no point in even counting the number of contested bills because a bill will not be debated unless a super-majority of senators considers it important enough to give it one of the precious priority debate slots. Those slots don’t come open often because the Senate usually takes two or three weeks (or longer) to get through a single bill.

Bills that do not pass either the House or the Senate by May 1 have practically no chance of becoming law this year, which means that one of those bills has to pass one of those bodies in the next three and a half weeks if we are to have any hope of moving into the 21st century on this matter this year.

Senate supporters managed to get a test vote that demonstrated that at least 37 of the 46 senators want to outlaw texting while driving, and they need to keep trying to get that bill up for a final vote.

We can talk all day about how insane it is for the Senate to allow a single senator to lead the entire body around by the ring on its collective nose. Or even how insane it is to give that power to the four senators who voted against the 37 to advance that anti-texting bill (the usual libertarian crowd of Lee Bright, Kevin Bryant, Tom Corbin and Shane Martin), but the unfortunate fact is that senators are not going to abandon that tradition anytime soon.

So instead, let’s focus on what can be done this year, this month, to make our highways safer.

Realistically speaking, our best shot at meeting the May 1 deadline is in the House, which has voted in previous years to outlaw texting while driving.

The wrinkle in all this is that the House will be on vacation or furlough or whatever you want to call “not in session” next week and the week after that, which means that it has only today and Thursday and April 29 and 30 to give tentative approval to H.4386 in order to get it to the Senate by May 1.

This is not the only important bill on the House’s contested calendar: A bill ahead of it gives the State Election Commission the authority to force county election offices to comply with state law (think about that for a moment), and it is likewise essential that this bill beat the May 1 deadline (and now, think about that).

But nearly all of the other bills ahead of these two are far, far less important, if worth passing at all — making it easier to get a divorce, allowing liquor to be sold on Election Day, making it easier for the Darlington racetrack to sell liquor, easing the Bingo restrictions, for example.

Even if the House manages to beat the May 1 deadline — and really, there’s no good excuse for it to fail that simple task — that merely keeps this issue alive for the final five weeks of the session. The 37 senators who understand the need to pass modest, rational highway-safety laws still will have to summon the courage to push back the four who prefer anarchy.

Perhaps more importantly, they’ll have to decide that saving lives on the highway is more important than the other bills that well-heeled special interests are pushing them to push through. And for them to do that, they’ll need to hear from us.

But for now, let’s just try to keep that option alive. That means the House needs to act. Today would be a good time for that.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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