State Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, once an outspoken opponent of strong state highway-safety laws, Wednesday made a stunning announcement:
He was wrong to oppose a tougher seat belt law in 2004 and 2005. And this year, Knotts said, he will push a measure to ban both cell phone texting and use of hand-held cell phones by motorists.
"I was wrong," Knotts said during a Senate subcommittee meeting, saying he now is convinced the 2005 law that requires all South Carolinians to wear seat belts, which he fought so hard against, is saving lives.
And Knotts - known for his libertarian, anti-regulation views - said Wednesday he does not want to be wrong on cell phone use by motorists, calling it a deadly distraction.
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"Using a cell phone . . . it takes your mind off your driving. It puts you in a position where you can hurt or injure other people," Knotts said.
Two weeks ago, a woman who evidence showed was using a cell phone, pleaded guilty in state court to reckless driving in the death of two bicyclists in Lancaster County.
Knotts on Wednesday explained his Road to Damascus-style conversion by relating a personal experience. Once, he said, he caused a traffic accident while driving and using a cell phone. He later said no one was hurt when he rear-ended a truck. But he caused $8,000 worth of damage to his Lincoln sedan.
Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee - which Knotts chairs - passed out a bill that would ban texting while driving. It contains no language concerning fines. But Knotts said he prefers a $25 fine - like the fine for seat belt violations. The bill now goes to the full Judiciary Committee.
Knotts fought to include language that also would have banned talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving.
But a fierce protest by state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who ridiculed the notion that using cell phones while driving might cause accidents, prompted a potential Knotts ally, state Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, to join Massey and outvote Knotts.
A law banning hand-held cell phone use by motorists "is not going to do anything," Massey scoffed. "It's completely feel-good, y'all."
Massey also said a proposed fine of $25 for using cell phones while driving "would have no impact whatsoever." He proposed stiff penalties for people caught using cell phones while driving. Massey also proposed making all kinds of distracted driving illegal - not just cell phone use.
But Knotts told Massey he was using the same faulty arguments that he, Knotts, used in fighting a mandatory seat belt law.
In 2004, Knotts filibustered against a then-proposed law, asserting it would not save lives. Like Massey, he proposed huge fines for anyone caught without a seat belt.
"That will kill the bill - an exorbitant fine," Knotts told Massey.
Facts show South Carolina's 2005 seat belt law - even though it only has a $25 fine and adds no bad-driving points against a motorist's record - has driven up seat belt usage and saves lives, Knotts said.
That law took effect in December 2005. Since then, state highway fatalities have dropped to 879 last year from 1,093 in 2005, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Public Safety director Mark Keel testified Wednesday before the subcommittee. "The fact we have a seat belt law and people buckle up, obviously, saves lives," Keel said.
Knotts did succeed in persuading Massey and Coleman to make the anti-texting measure apply to drivers of any age. Originally, it only would have applied to drivers under 18.
"You are just as dead if you get hit by someone 60 years old as someone 16," Knotts said. "Dead is dead."
Safety advocate Tom Crosby, vice president for the motor club AAA Carolinas, praised Knotts.
"It takes courage for an elected official who took a strong public stand on a position to admit he was wrong. He deserves to be commended," Crosby said. "And Sen. Knotts is definitely right this time."
For Knotts, there's no middle ground on cell phone use. "Your main focus on that highway should be the safety of yourself, your family and other motorists."
A broad cell-phone driving ban bill is set to go before the House Education and Public Works Committee - perhaps next week.