Tri-county distracted driving

Collisions: 10,514

Fatal collisions: 20

Fatalities: 23

Collisions with injury: 2,599

Injuries: 3,833

Figures reflect combined total for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties of collisions, fatalities and injuries in which distracted driving/inattention was cited as a factor from 2010-2012.

Source: State Department of Public Safety

South Carolina, home to some of the nation’s deadliest highways, is among a minority of states where texting while driving is allowed despite mounting evidence of its dangers.

Texting bans

The following South Carolina municipalities have banned texting while driving:

Clemson

Walhalla

West Union

Columbia

Camden

Sumter

Beaufort

The state ranks third in the country for dangerous highways, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, yet only seven municipalities including Columbia have banned texting while driving. The state remains mostly neutral toward those who send and receive electronic messages behind the wheel.

Driven to distraction

Texting makes a driver at least 20 times more likely to have an accident or near-accident.

A person who texts behind the wheel has their eyes off the road for nearly five seconds, the equivalent of traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph.

Dialing a cell phone while driving causes a nearly three-fold increase in the likelihood of a crash or near-accident.

Source: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

That could change as proposed legislation to criminalize texting while driving is considered in the General Assembly.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he ran a red light on the Septima Clark Parkway, commonly known as the Crosstown, while reading a text message.

“That’s when I pulled over to the side of the road and took a deep breath and said, ‘Lord have mercy, I could have killed somebody,’ ” he said.

Under a bill sponsored by Gilliard, a person convicted of first-offense texting and driving would be fined $250 or imprisoned 30 days, and have his driver’s license suspended for 30 days. A second-offense conviction would bring a fine of $1,000 or 60 days in jail, suspension of a driver’s license for 60 days and two points on a driver’s license.

“I’ve seen people going 85 mph and texting. We have to do something,” he said.

Public health concern

The public health risks of texting while driving have cropped up on the radar of researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a new CDC report, nearly one-third of Americans surveyed said that in the past 30 days they had read or sent at least one text message while driving. Some reported regular texting behind the wheel.

Strategies such as legislation to ban the practice, high-visibility enforcement and educational campaigns are options to combat the growing problem, the study says.

“Driver distraction has become an emerging concern. Mobile device use while driving is a prevalent behavior in the United States,” the CDC reported in its March 15 edition of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The study suggests that driver distraction because of mobile communication devices has become a public health concern in the ranks of driving intoxicated, excessive speed and not using seat belts.

The CDC study analyzes mobile-device use among drivers in the U.S. and seven European countries based on data collected in 2011.

Some 3,700 people in the U.S. were surveyed online. Of those, 70 percent said they talked on a cellphone while driving. Some 31 percent said they sent or received text messages while behind the wheel.

The U.S. and Portugal had the highest percentages of drivers who reported using mobile devices while motoring. The United Kingdom had the lowest. Generally, the overseas countries have stricter laws on cellphone use behind the wheel, the study states.

Local bans

In the Lowcountry, Beaufort is the first town to crack down on texting behind the wheel.

“It’s clearly become a hazard,” said Mayor Billy Keyserling.

The Beaufort law, which went into effect in November, establishes a fine of $50 for first-offense texting and driving.

“There’s been no negative fallout. We have no regrets about it whatsoever and think it’s a good thing,” he said.

Both Keyserling and Councilman George O’Kelley, who led the push for the texting-while-driving ban, said they think a city educational campaign on the issue has paid dividends.

“What motivated me was safety,” O’Kelley said.

Clemson, Walhalla, West Union, Camden and Sumter also have outlawed texting while driving.

In the Upstate, the issue has drawn the attention of state Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, who is sponsoring a bill that would make it a misdemeanor offense to text while driving.

She said legislators must move cautiously and strike a balance between personal freedoms and public safety. At the same time, new mobile devices and options for communicating in the car are coming on the market at a dizzying pace.

“We cannot legislate as fast as technology moves,” she said.

She believes now is the time for the General Assembly to tackle the issue of receiving and sending electronic messages behind the wheel.

“We do have to stop texting and driving,” she said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.