What's next

Mount Pleasant Town Council will debate and vote on its proposed ban on driving while using a handheld electronic device at its next meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 13 at Town Hall.

— The town soon may join the ranks of South Carolina local governments that ban using hand-held devices while driving.

Distracted driving in S.C.

According to S.C. Department of Public Safety data, distracted or inattentive driving this year has played a role in:

23 fatal collisions.

1,836 collisions that involved injury.

4,621 collisions that involved property damage.

6,480 total collisions.

Town Council's Police, Legal and Judicial Committee voted 2-1 Monday to recommend such an ordinance to full council.

Highlights

Mount Pleasant's proposed ban on driving while using a handheld device would:

Apply not only to cellphones but also to iPods, personal digital assistance and two-way radios, among other devices.

Allow drivers to use their phone if they have a hands-free device, such as an earpiece or headset.

Exempt emergency workers and those calling to report an emergency.

Call for a $50 fine for a minor violation, plus mandatory court fees.

Call for up to a $200 fine, plus mandatory court fees, for a violation at the time of a traffic accident.

Not let police arrest an offender and take that person into custody solely for a violation.

Drivers who use a cellphone, whether to call, send a text or for some other purpose, could be cited with a violation punishable by a $162.50 fine.

Despite having some of the nation's deadliest highways, South Carolina is one of just a few states that still allows texting while driving. Beaufort, Columbia, Sumter, Clemson and other towns have passed their own bans, but neither Charleston nor North Charleston have tried to follow suit.

Mount Pleasant council members have debated banning texting while driving for years, and may be ready to act after the Legislature declined to tackle the issue this year. Council members have debated outlawing only texting but decided to expand their proposed ban to use of all electronics while driving, except in emergencies.

Council members Thomasena Stokes Marshall and Elton Carrier voted for the proposal, while Councilman Chris Nickels voted no. Mayor Billy Swails was not at the meeting because he was out of town following the death of an uncle.

Nickels predicted that the vote would be close when the nine-member Town Council considers it next week.

Councilwoman Linda Page, who is running for mayor, said she planned to vote no, while Councilman Craig Rhyne expressed mixed feelings and said he was interested in hearing more from residents.

Councilman John Burn said he plans to vote for it, while Councilman Ken Glasson said he is leaning against, in part because drivers may be confused where the practice is illegal, and because it may encourage motorists to hold their phones lower in the car. “I'm more of an individual liberty guy,” he said.

Police Chief Carl Ritchie said if it were to pass, his officers would focus enforcement on cases where a driver was visibly distracted.

“My officers aren't going to be out looking for every person who has a phone in their hand,” he said.

Nickels and Page said the town's law against careless driving already addresses the problem of distracted drivers.

Town Council's division reflects that of the wider public. Several readers commented on The Post and Courier's Facebook page.

Woody Ebersold of Ridgeville expressed concern about the idea. He said he is a Red Cross volunteer, and they use radios in Mount Pleasant. “Delivery services, taxis and countless others rely on communications to do their daily business,” he said.

Chris Bright of Summerville said it's ridiculous to think that people need to be able to make calls or text while driving. “Be safe and put your phone down while behind the wheel of a car,” he said.

The proposed law says police can't stop a person on this charge “except when the officer has probable cause that a violation has occurred based on the officer's clear and unobstructed view of a person who is using a hand-held electronic communication device.”

Also, officers would be able to inspect the phone to check when a call or text was made, but they couldn't confiscate the device.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have shown that reaching for a phone, dialing and texting can triple a driver's chances of getting into a crash.

The proposed ordinance would not apply to police, firefighters or paramedics, or those using a hands-free device. Motorists also would be able to use their phone if their car isn't moving or if they are calling 911 to report an emergency.

Town Council has agreed that texting while driving is a dangerous practice, one that has increased the accident rate in town, but it had delayed action in hopes the General Assembly would pass a statewide ban.

The Legislature adjourned in June without doing so.

The ordinance calls for a $50 fine, but those convicted also would have to pay more than $100 in surcharges.

“We're not looking at generating a huge cash flow from this,” Stokes-Marshall said.

The ordinance still would allow drivers to use a Bluetooth or other hands-free device.

However, a University of Utah study this year found that such hands-free devices, especially ones that convert speech-to-text for text messaging, also aren't necessarily safe to use while driving. The study was backed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.