Charleston City Council to take up texting-while-driving ban next week

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. Photo Illustration/ Grace Beahm, Staff

Fresh off Mount Pleasant's move to forbid texting while driving, Charleston is poised to consider a ban of its own.

City Council on Wednesday will have first consideration of an ordinance prohibiting drivers from using e-devices behind the wheel. It would cover any form of texting, reading of texts, e-mailing or typing.

The fine for violators is set at $100 plus court costs. Simply talking on a cell phone is not being targeted.

Mayor Joe Riley said the timing is right for the city to join the growing list of municipal governments with similar crackdowns.

“Our legal department has been working on a texting ban for quite some time,” Riley said. “About a month ago I asked them to get it into final form. I think it's very important and hope that we can get it passed.”

But just because the ordinance is being scheduled for discussion doesn't mean it's automatically certain to become part of the city code.

Councilman Bill Moody, chairman of the Traffic and Transportation Committee that will have the first review of the proposal, said he welcomed the debate and would schedule a public hearing on the idea. But he added that as written, he is not a supporter.

“I'm kind of lukewarm as far as the whole thing is concerned,” he said, pointing to still unsettled questions on how police would enforce it or determine probable cause. “I'll call for the public hearing but I'm not giving my support for it at this point,” he said.

City Police Chief Greg Mullen was unavailable for comment Friday. Deputy Chief Tony Elder also said enforcement details still need to be determined, based on what the final wording passed by council will say.

The two-page proposal says the ban would be in effect for any person in charge of a motor vehicle in motion on a public street or highway within the city limits. It also says that if the stopping officer has probable cause to believe a driver has violated the ordinance, he can subpoena the telephone records to support a case.

“The arresting officer or the defendant may admit as evidence, without providing a chain of custody, telephone number or texting information, or both, that are relevant to a violation,” the wording says.

Listed exceptions include the operator of a motor vehicle that is lawfully parked or stopped, or a law enforcement officer, member of a fire department or the operator of a public or private ambulance who is the course of performing official duties. For violators, no driver's license penalty points would be assessed either.

Last week Mount Pleasant Town Council voted to make it illegal to text and drive, while still allowing motorists to talk on their hand-held phones.

Violators there would be subject to a $50 fine. If a traffic accident is involved, a driver could face an additional fine of up to $200.

A second favorable council vote is required before the ban on texting while driving becomes law. If the measure is approved, Mount Pleasant would become the first local municipality to ban texting while driving.

Under the provisions of the approved ordinance, law enforcement may not stop a person unless an officer has probable cause to believe that texting while driving is occurring based on a clear and unobstructed view.

Nearly a dozen municipalities, including Beaufort, Columbia, Sumter and Clemson, have passed their own texting-while-driving bans.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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