According to information compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association, 41 states prohibit text messaging while driving, 37 states ban novice drivers from using cell phones, and 12 ban all handheld cell phone use in vehicles. Only two states in the union have not passed any sort of regulations whatsoever on the use of electronic devices in cars: Montana and South Carolina.
State lawmakers have flirted with a texting ban on several occasions, but after the bills stalled out in the legislature, local municipalities started taking matters into their own hands. In September 2012, Beaufort banned texting while driving and prohibited minors from using handheld electronic communication devices while driving. On Sept. 10 this year, Mt. Pleasant passed its own texting ban. Other local texting bans have been enacted in Columbia, Camden, Clemson, Sumter, West Union, and even tiny Walhalla.
Due to the patchwork nature of enforcement, there is now an invisible line across the middle of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge separating text-free Mt. Pleasant from text-as-you-please Charleston. A commuter could conceivably wait until crossing the Cooper River into Charleston and then tweet, e-mail, and text to his heart's content.
Charleston City Council is working to change that, and they got started Tuesday night by approving the first reading of a citywide distracted-driving ban, which would outlaw the use of smartphones and other electronic communication devices in cars for every purpose except making phone calls. The ordinance carries a $100 fine plus court fees, and violators will not be given points on their driver's licenses. Council will vote on final approval at its Oct. 8 meeting, where the ordinance may appear in a revised form.
The current version of the ordinance has a few quirks. For one thing, unlike Mt. Pleasant's rule, it applies to all vehicles, motorized or otherwise, including golf carts, mopeds, bicycles, pedicabs, horse-drawn carriages, and even skateboards.
The ordinance also includes some legal ambiguities. It specifically bans the use of any "handheld electronic communication device," which it defines as an "instrument that allows a person to wirelessly communicate with another while holding or operating such with the hand." In other words, the ordinance does not appear to ban the use of MP3 players or GPS units while driving. It also defines the word "use" as "holding a portable electronic communication device while viewing, taking, or transmitting images, playing games, or composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving, or retrieving email, text messages, or other electronic data."
At a Traffic and Transportation Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon before the Council meeting began, Councilman Mike Seekings asked a member of the city's legal staff for clarification on whether the ordinance bans the use of phones as GPS units and MP3 players. "What can I do?" he asked.
"Anything other than talking on your phone is illegal," the staff member replied.
Seekings also raised an issue that was never resolved: "This phone and a lot of people's phones double as a GPS. I use it sometimes for directions. I just wonder if we're telling people who use their phones as a GPS as opposed to going out and buying a Garmin that they stick up on their dashboard, whether or not we're getting in a gray area." Adding to the confusion, a previous version of the ordinance specifically allowed the use of a factory-installed GPS unit while driving, but that section was removed in later versions.
Councilman Bill Moody, chairman of Traffic and Transportation, says he still thinks the ordinance would prohibit the use of phones as GPS units, while built-in, hands-free dashboard GPS units would be allowed. Moody says he uses his own smartphone as an MP3 player in his car, and he talks about the safety of using an MP3 player in degrees.
"If I want to change the music or do something like that, I can just push the menu button and it'll stop that song or it'll start over again or whatever," Moody says. "But if I start taking that phone or iPod and start searching for albums and doing that kind of stuff, then I think you would be at risk. Again, I'll go back to saying it'll be very difficult to enforce this. But what I think we're saying, and what the community wants us to say, is when you're driving your dadgum car, drive your car and quit doing all that other crap. Whatever it is, you need to be paying attention to your driving."
Seekings says the ordinance still has some issues that need to be resolved. "I'm going look at it because I've had a lot of questions and I've been thinking about it," Seekings says. "We'll take another look at it before it goes to second and third reading and make sure it says exactly what we want it to say."
Charleston's ordinance would stop short of forcing drivers to make all phone calls with hands-free technology, as has been done in 12 states. Drivers would still be able to dial numbers and hold their phones while driving. Moody says there was "a big debate" within the committee over whether to include a hands-free requirement in the ordinance. "What we wanted to do is we wanted to get this ban out there," Moody says. "We wanted it very close to what Mt. Pleasant had passed so that you're not driving across and 'Now I can't, now I can.'"
As the ordinance is written, distracted driving will be a primary offense, meaning police would be able to pull drivers over if they see them using their phones for something other than making calls. Officers would be allowed to subpoena telephone records if they have probable cause to believe someone has violated the ordinance.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen says the police department would not add patrols specifically to look for texting drivers. "Every officer is constantly looking for criminal activity, for traffic violations, and this will just be another city ordinance violation that, if they observe it in their normal duties, they'll take action to correct it," Mullen says. Officers would have the option of giving a verbal warning, a warning ticket, or a citation.
Mullen, like Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., has been an outspoken proponent of a texting ban. "We've been talking about this for a long time, and I think probably over a year ago this came up initially," Mullen said. "What delayed us is we were hoping that the General Assembly was going to do something statewide. When the session recessed without any action from the state, then we started looking at it again."