ON A BUSY day last month that muted the media coverage, the Senate for the first time ever passed a bill to restrict using a cell phone while driving.
Now, in a twist not often seen around the State House, the House needs to fix the bill.
The reason the overwhelming majority in the Senate was able to overcome a handful of libertarian obstructionists and get the bill passed was that it does less than it seems. Or perhaps more — in a bad way.
In return for instituting a statewide ban, it would wipe off the books several local bans on texting while driving that have higher penalties and lower restrictions on enforcement.
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That tradeoff would be worth making if, like those local bans, S.459 applied to all drivers. It does not. It applies only to people driving with a beginner’s permit or a conditional or special restricted driver’s license.
Even a ban on inexperienced drivers would be a huge step forward — an embarrassingly inadequate one, at least when it comes to texting while driving, but still a huge one — if it were simply that.
But wiping out perfectly good local bans on texting while driving in return for a statewide ban that applies only to a tiny minority of drivers is not a step forward. It is a step backwards. A step our state must not take. It’s such a bad step that Sen. Paul Thurmond, who at one point convinced nearly every member of the Senate to back a complete ban, voted against the bill, explaining that he “can’t support a Bill that would eliminate (preempt) the hard work of the municipalities in my jurisdiction, without addressing the issue that they were able to resolve.”
The idea of imposing restrictions only on inexperienced drivers was developed back when the most dangerous thing people did with cell phones was to talk on them. Since most studies don’t take into account how drivers modify their behavior when they’re on the phone, the evidence wasn’t conclusive enough to convince many reasonable lawmakers that we should ban cell phone use.
But the evidence always has been clear that inexperienced drivers — particularly teens, the bulk of such drivers — had no business talking on the phone while they were driving. They’re so uncertain behind the wheel and have such immature judgment and are so easily distracted that we limit the number of friends they can have in the car with them.
Even a novice-drivers ban was too much for our legislators, though, so we did nothing as cell phones morphed from talking devices to texting devices. Addictive texting devices. Texting devices with small screens and smaller keys that require visual concentration and command most users’ constant attention.
Of course, there’s no way to argue that texting while driving is ever safe. It is a simple matter of physics: Our eyes can’t focus two places at once — on the tiny screen with tiny letters and on the highway. More experienced drivers might have better judgment and might be less likely to text while they’re driving, but they’re no safer while they’re texting than younger drivers.
Yet this simple concept failed to register with our legislators, so as the rest of the nation cracked down on the deadly combination of texting while driving, we did nothing.
In desperation, Sens. Vincent Sheheen and Luke Rankin proposed trying that no-cell-phones-for-young-drivers bill again, and in order to get the bill out of committee, they agreed to wipe out all the local bans on texting while driving. Which is a very, very bad deal.
Meantime, on the very day that the Senate was passing its poison-pill bill, the House approved an actual ban on texting while driving. Under H.4386, it would be illegal for anyone, regardless of age or experience, to “use a wireless electronic communication device to compose, send, or read a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle on the public streets and highways of this State.”
Critics have complained that the penalties in the House bill are too low — a fine of just $25 — but that ignores what we know about laws: If people believe a law is legitimate, they will obey it simply because it is the law. Our safety belt law carries a similarly low penalty, but use has skyrocketed since lawmakers finally allowed police to start enforcing it. And the House bill would allow police to enforce the texting ban.
The House bill also wipes out local texting bans, some with higher penalties, but that’s OK, because we get something more valuable in return: a statewide ban on texting, which makes enforcement easier and compliance more likely and coverage complete.
It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a good bill, and now that the Senate has passed a bill, the hurdle has been lowered to getting this good bill into law. All the House needs to do is amend the Senate bill with the language in the House bill and send it to the Senate, where it will arrive near the top of the Senate’s agenda. And then all the overwhelming majority in the Senate will need to do is refuse to let the Senate pass over that bill but instead insist on taking it up, and agree to the House changes.
There is absolutely no good reason we can’t have a texting ban in South Carolina before the Legislature goes home in three weeks.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.