by Paul Bowers
Gov. Nikki Haley signed a statewide texting-while-driving ban into law Monday, putting an end to a patchwork of local texting bans enacted by municipal governments across the state. Effective immediately, most provisions of local bans in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant are no longer in effect.
The statewide ban is fairly straightforward compared to the Charleston ban that passed last year, which covered "distracted driving" more broadly and also applied to golf carts, mopeds, bicycles, pedicabs, horse-drawn carriages, and even skateboards.
"The state law will preempt our ordinance in regard to motorized vehicles, but our ordinance regarding riding a bike and other non-motorized vehicles we believe will still be enforceable," says city spokesperson Cameron Pollard.
The new state law reads, in part:
It is unlawful for a person 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.
For purposes of the law, "text-based communication" includes text messaging, instant messaging, and e-mailing.
South Carolina's law took effect immediately, but law enforcement agencies have been instructed to only issue warnings for the first 180 days. A spokesman for the Mt. Pleasant Police Department confirmed that officers have stopped enforcing the local texting ban and will only issue warnings for the first 180 days.
Dialing and speaking on a cell phone are not banned under the new state law. Exceptions to the law include if the driver is parked, stopped at a stop sign or red light, using a device's GPS function, using a hands-free wireless electronic communication device, texting a request for emergency assistance, using a digital dispatch system, or performing duties as a public safety official.
Under the state ban, lawbreakers can only be fined up to $25 for a single infraction, and violations will not be included in DMV or SLED records. A clause in the ban also prevents law enforcement agencies from reporting texting-while-driving incidents to drivers' insurance companies, although the Department of Public Safety will track statistical information on citations written.
The $25 fine is lower than the local fines that went into effect last year. Charleston's fine for distracted driving was $100. Mt. Pleasant drivers faced a $50 fine for a first offense, plus an additional $200 fine for using a handheld device at the time of an accident.
According to data compiled by Mother Jones, among the 44 states that now prohibit texting while driving, South Carolina's penalty is tied with Alabama's and Kentucky's for second-cheapest in the nation, behind California where the fine is $20. South Carolina's fine is lower than in the neighboring states of Georgia ($150) and North Carolina ($230), and unlike in other states, a violation is not considered a criminal offense. The state with the most stringent texting ban is Alaska, where the maximum penalty for a first offense is a $10,000 fine or a year in prison. If a driver causes injury to another person while texting and driving in Alaska, the offense is considered a felony.
A provision of the South Carolina law states that an officer cannot pull you over unless he or she has a "clear and unobstructed view" of you using a cell phone or mobile device. Once you have been pulled over, the officer cannot seize, search, or view your phone to prove that you were texting. You cannot be arrested for the offense unless you fail to appear in court or pay the fine.
Enforcement of the local bans in Mt. Pleasant and Charleston was sluggish at best. As of May 29, the two cities' police departments had issued a combined 10 tickets for violations of the ordinances that passed last fall.