by Paul Bowers
Tuesday night, Charleston City Council passed a ban on texting while driving. Charleston now joins Mt. Pleasant and a handful of other municipalities around the state that have passed similar bans while efforts at enacting a statewide ordinance have floundered.
The new ordinance, which effectively outlaws all activities except phone calls on a cell phone while driving in city limits, states that "no person shall operate a vehicle on a public street or highway within the city limits while using a Handheld Electronic Communication Device." Drivers are still allowed to dial phone numbers and make calls while driving, and they can use their phones while in a "stationary and parked position," according to the ordinance. Exceptions are also made for police, firefighters, EMTs, and other public safety officials, as well as people dialing 911.
While the ordinance is effective immediately and carries a $100 fine, Charleston police will not start writing tickets immediately. Instead, the department will spend 30 days putting up signs and working on public education, followed by 30 days of issuing warnings. After those first 60 days, police will begin issuing fines.
Violating the new ordinance is a primary offense, meaning that police officers can pull a person over for violating it. In order to conduct a traffic stop, an officer must have "probable cause that a violation has occurred based on the officer's clear and unobstructed view of a person's use of a Handheld Electronic Communication Device," according to the ordinance. If the officer has probable cause, he or she may also subpoena a driver's telephone records. However, an officer may not seize or require the forfeiture of a cell phone based on a violation of the ordinance.
In the law, a "Handheld Electronic Communication Device" is defined as "an electronic device including, but not limited to a telephone, cell phone, personal digital assistant, text messaging device, email messaging device, a computer, or other such instrument that allows a person to wirelessly communicate with another while holding or operating such with the hand." When a cell phone is being used as an MP3 player, drivers must pull over and park to change songs. When a cell phone is being used as a GPS unit, drivers must pull over and park to type in an address. The ordinance does not specifically mention standalone GPS units or MP3 players.
"You can use a cell phone to dial and talk while operating a moving vehicle," says police spokesman Charles Francis. "The manipulation of any other device would be in violation of the ordinance."
City Councilman Aubry Alexander, who spoke to the City Paper via speakerphone while pulled over in his car, says he hopes the ordinance will make people "stop and think" about driving while distracted. But he says enforcement could be difficult as police try to suss out whether a driver was dialing a phone number or sending a text message. He also says enforcement west of the Ashley could present problems as drivers pass through pockets of city and county land. "If the county enacts [a ban], then you'll have that consistency that many are looking for across the board," Alexander says.