Two cell phone bills advance

Two bills that restrict motorists' cell phone use - one broad and one narrow - cleared full committees Tuesday in the S.C. House and Senate and now go to the respective chambers for debate.

The more sweeping House bill would ban drivers from texting on a cell phone - or from using a hand-held cell phone at all.

It would also prohibit public and private school bus drivers from texting or talking on cell phones.

The narrower Senate bill would only ban texting while driving. Both bills would allow hands-free cell phone use. Both bills contain nominal penalties.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Education and Public Works Committee passed their bills by wide margins.

Lawmakers opposing the fast-moving measures derided them as hard to enforce and an example of an overreaching government.

"Big Daddy government," sneered Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union, minutes before a majority on the House panel outvoted him.

Rep. Jim Stewart, R-Aiken, said banning cell phones would hurt small-business operators who handle a lot of work in their vehicles using a cell phone.

More than 30 states have laws restricting some form of cell phone use by drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Six of those states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned all hand-held cell phone use by drivers. Others prohibit various combinations of texting and cell phone use - some restricting use by a driver's age, for example. Numerous studies have proven use of the devices on the road is a dangerous distraction.

Tuesday's Senate debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee featured a confession by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, about how he had almost run down a pedestrian.

"I was driving in the parking lot of a local mall about two years ago," said Lourie, "I had a new Treo (cell phone) at the time - e-mails, text messages - and I was looking down at my phone, responding to something, when I looked up, there was somebody walking, and they almost walked right in front of my car. And I thought, that's it, I'm not doing it ever again.'"

It was the second personal testimony in a week by a senator about cell phone driving dangers.

Last week, Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said he crashed into a truck when his cell phone distracted him.

Knotts' confession was especially striking because - while Lourie is a known advocate for safety laws - Knotts generally has opposed laws to restrict what he has called driver freedoms.

And Tuesday, Knotts reminded Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, that for years they both opposed seat belt legislation, and that a 2005 seat belt law - passed over their objections - had wound up saving lives.

"I was wrong on the seat belt law, not believing it would save lives," Knotts told McConnell. "It did save lives, and if we don't do something to stop (texting) on the roadways, we're missing the boat."

McConnell did not reply to Knotts' remarks. But he did vote with the majority to send the texting ban bill to the full Senate.

In the House committee, too, lawmakers' personal experience with the dangers of cell phone distractions seemed a major factor in voting for restrictions.

"If we were honest about it, there's probably not a single soul in here that hasn't met, while driving down the road, a car creeping over the yellow line that almost made you run off the road. And you look up - and they are on a cell phone," said Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens.

Lawmakers also said they didn't want their children using a cell phone while driving.

"I have a young son. I don't allow him to talk on a cell phone while he's driving," said Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood.

Nicholson told other senators that this week, the town of Clemson passed an ordinance banning cell phone texting while driving. That raised the specter of numerous towns passing a patchwork of different cell phone laws - something that didn't please senators.

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, said senators had three choices: Do nothing, ban all cell phone use by drivers or pass an admittedly imperfect texting ban.

If the Legislature does nothing, it will just delay action until a huge cell phone-related tragedy happens on the highway, Rose said.

Banning all cell phone use is impractical, he said. So, the only reasonable action is to pass a texting ban, Rose said.

"There will be a lessening of texting on roads if we pass this bill," Rose said.