Crime & Courts

Texting bans spread in SC

Now that the largest municipalities in both northern and southern Beaufort County have adopted bans on texting while driving, county government could be next.

County Councilman Jerry Stewart said it’s an issue the county ought to discuss. Those talks could begin in the county’s Governmental Committee, of which Stewart is chairman.

Stewart said he plans to solicit Sheriff P.J. Tanner’s thoughts on a possible ban.

Tanner said in an interview Wednesday he would support the county joining the city of Beaufort and Town of Hilton Head Island in adopting a ban. It would help clear confusion among motorists about where texting while driving is still legal in the county, he said.

However, a ban approved by County Council would apply only to unincorporated areas of the county. The three municipalities without a texting ordinance — Bluffton, Port Royal and Yemassee — would have to enact their own bans for the practice to be illegal countywide. Those governments have not formally discussed the issue and don’t have plans to do so soon, according to officials from the towns.

Tanner said any ordinance drafted by the municipalities or the county should be written to correspond to Hilton Head’s ordinance. That ban, following Tanner’s suggestion, was modeled after an S.C. House bill that has received the most support in the legislature.

Using that proposal would also help local enforcement, “because if that bill becomes state law, then there are no modifications needed,” he said.

Also, the Sheriff’s Office already provides police service to Hilton Head Island, where motorists are restricted by ordinance from composing or reading electronic messages, such as texts or emails within town limits. It does not prevent drivers from using GPS navigation, MP3 players or hands-free phone functions. Requests for emergency service would also be exempt.

Violating the ban is a misdemeanor, with fines of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for each subsequent violation. However, Tanner said deputies will issue mostly warnings to offenders at first, in an attempt to educate the public.

The ordinance took effect July 2, immediately following council’s approval, but deputies have not begun making traffic stops yet, Tanner said. He declined to say when such stops would begin but added, “We’re not far from it.”

The Hilton Head Town Council approved the ban by a 4-1 vote, although some council members said they preferred that such a ban come as a result of state law, rather than local ordinance.

Tanner agreed.

A state law would help ensure that tourists, commuters and residents learn “through a level of consistency that texting while driving is not allowed anywhere in South Carolina,” he said.

South Carolina is one of only three states without restrictions on motorists using cellphones. Arizona and Montana are the other two.

Hilton Head and Beaufort are among at least 11 state municipalities that ban texting while driving.

The Beaufort Police Department had written nearly 30 warnings and just three tickets by mid-June, since its ban took effect in November, according to Police Chief Matt Clancy.

“We lean more toward writing warning tickets because the intent is to get the behavior to stop,” he said. “Whether you get a ticket or a warning, the stop is what gets your attention.”

Beaufort’s ban is based on a different House bill than the one Hilton Head used for its ordinance. The main difference is that Beaufort’s ban also restricts drivers younger than 18 from all cellphone use while driving.

Clancy said he doesn’t have “the crystal ball to really say” if people are texting behind the wheel less. But he did say the city’s ordinance does have people talking.

“The word is getting out, and people are reminding each other, which is what we want,” Clancy said. “The education part is more important than the actual punishable part.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC