S.C. officials, teens target texting while driving

High school senior Windy Key was stunned recently to see a young driver steering her car by hooking her arms around the wheel so she could use her hands to text.

Driving while texting is a dangerous and deadly practice, experts say. And sentiment to ban texting while driving is growing in legislatures nationwide, including in South Carolina.

"It is immensely dangerous," said Key, who turns 18 today and inspired a South Carolina proposal to ban all texting activity while driving.

Backed by a couple dozen Dreher High School classmates, Key on Monday stood beside state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, to support the bill she urged the lawmaker to draft.

"We want the state to know we recognize as teens, this is a very prevalent problem," Key said.

Smith's bill, to be prefiled today, is one of three new measures put forth for the 2010 General Assembly to give law enforcement the power to ticket drivers who read or send text messages.

The punishments range from a ticket, given as a secondary violation during a traffic stop, to a mandatory trip to jail.

Smith's bill, which carries a $250 fine for a first offense, with a one-month driver's license suspension, is the middle ground of the three new bills filed.

Texting legislation filed last year went nowhere in the General Assembly. But this year there seems to be more recognition among lawmakers about how dangerous a distraction it is to text and drive.

"There is growing opposition to this (texting while driving)," Smith said. "It's gonna become law. Why should we wait until someone dies?"

Thus far, 21 states have banned the practice outright, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, one of the latest being North Carolina, which banned the activity in October.

More than half of states have laws on the books restricting texting in some way.

An oft-cited Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found drivers are 23 times more likely to contribute to an accident when texting and driving than otherwise.

That same study found sending a text while driving to be the equivalent of driving the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour without looking.

Driver inattention is the leading cause of all collisions, said Sid Gaulden, S.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman. However, the state lacks the statistics needed to say for sure how often texting or talking on a cell phone contributes to car accidents.

"We're supportive of efforts to save lives on the highway," Gaulden said of the new texting legislation. "That's our major mission."

President Barack Obama issued an order Oct. 1 banning texting while driving for all federal employees, including use of personal phones to conduct federal business by texts while driving.

Similar federal legislation is expected regarding truckers and texting.

"We're concerned about the impact the technology age is having on motorists in general," said 17-year-old Stuart Teal, another of the Dreher students supporting Smith's bill.

The students championed the bill as part of an Advanced Placement U.S. government and politics course. But they said they feel "passionate" about the issue and expect to visit the State House if the texting bills are debated next year.

That possibility is on the upswing.

"If you're on the road, you owe it to everyone else on the road to pay attention," said Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, whose bill limits fines to $25 for a first offense. He said he expects fellow lawmakers to amend his bill, perhaps making punishments tougher.

"We'd kinda like to start the debate," Bryant said.

The third bill, sponsored by state Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson/Oconee, would carry up to a 60-day jail term on a first texting offense, a fine up to $2,500, and a year driver's license suspension.

In addition, Bowen's bill allows an arresting officer to seize a motorist's cell phone to determine if a violation occurred, and enables the officer to subpoena the driver's telephone records if necessary.

"When technology gets ahead of our laws, we have a responsibility (to make necessary adjustments)," said Bowen, whose bill puts a first-time texting offense on a par with first-time driving under the influence of alcohol violations.

"It's definitely on the radar," Bowen said.