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.

Source: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

From east of the Cooper to Charleston to Folly Beach, there is growing momentum to take action against the dangers of texting while driving.

S.C. texting bans

Localities that have banned texting while driving include:

Beaufort

Beaufort County

Camden

Clemson

Columbia

Hilton Head

Sumter

Walhalla

West Union

On Wednesday, Charleston City Council’s Traffic and Transportation Committee will consider an ordinance to bar drivers from writing or reading messages on a hand-held device.

“I think it’s very important and hope that we can get it passed. Texting while driving is very dangerous,” said Mayor Joe Riley.

Mount Pleasant Town Council is poised to become the first local government to regulate texting while driving. Last Tuesday the council gave preliminary approval to a ban on texting behind the wheel. The vote was 6-3. A second favorable vote is required before the new law can take effect. The next scheduled Town Council meeting is Sept. 10.

The issue gained support in Mount Pleasant because of the efforts of Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall.

“It’s safety. It’s not about denying anybody their freedoms or taking their rights away,” she said.

Stokes-Marshall said she envisions an anti-texting campaign in schools and the community-at-large.

Councilwoman Linda Page, who voted against the ordinance, said she is concerned about texting while driving, but believes the issue is best handled by the General Assembly. Otherwise, it falls under a patchwork of municipal laws.

Page also is concerned about whether the texting law is practical to enforce. A driver looking at a number on a phone screen could appear to be texting, she said.

“You put our police in an awkward situation,” she said.

She also questioned whether a $50 fine would be much of a deterrent.

Statewide concern

Local concern about texting while driving mirrors what is happening across the state. Laws have been passed in Beaufort, Columbia and Clemson that govern typing on a handheld device while motoring.

The General Assembly has wrestled with the issue, but so far has not acted.

Clemson was first in the state to pass a texting ban three years ago.

From the start, Clemson police have emphasized changing driver behavior through education rather than writing tickets, said Police Chief Jimmy Dixon.

On Monday, Clemson University will pass out 3,000 thumb rings bearing an anti-texting message to incoming freshmen, Dixon said.

“It’s a constant (educational) process,” he said.

Police have written only 12 citations to violators; all the defendants pled guilty. The fine is $100 plus court fees, which brings the total cost to about $225, he said.

“It’s not ever going to be easy to enforce. We’re not going to stop it,” he said.

Dixon said police look for cues such as a driver holding a phone over the top of the steering wheel or a car weaving on the road.

If necessary to obtain a conviction, a subpoena for phone records may be issued, he said, and those records can be compared to the date and time stamp on a police cruiser dash cam, he said.

In the Lowcountry, Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he thinks the texting-while-driving issue is best left to the General Assembly, but it will be discussed at the Aug. 22 council meeting at the request of Councilman Joe Qualey.

“You’ve got to do something,” Qualey said. “If we enact this and it saves somebody from catastrophic injury or death it is certainly worth it.”

Summerville Mayor Bill Collins said texting behind the wheel can be as deadly as drunk driving.

“Our council has not discussed a ban, but I will test the waters with them,” he said in an email.

Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin plans a discussion of a ban on texting while driving at an upcoming council workshop.

“I personally think it’s a good idea,” he said.

Stiff punishment

Municipal fines for texting behind the wheel range from $50 to $300, plus court costs, depending on the circumstances.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, is co-sponsor of a bill that would provide for stiffer, mandatory penalties.

“That’s when people really get the message,” he said.

The punishment for a first offense would be $250 or 30 days in prison and suspension of a driver’s license for a month.

Gilliard said he plans a forum on the issue in September.

“It really resonates with people,” he said.

Not all municipalities are focused on texting while driving. North Charleston City Council has never discussed it, and there are no plans to bring it up, said city spokesman Ryan Johnson.

Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin said he thinks driving while texting is best handled at the state level.

At least eight towns and cities have approved laws banning texting while driving. Beaufort County Council passed a prohibition that applies to its unincorporated areas.

South Carolina is among the few states that still allow texting while driving. It is banned in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Distracted or inattentive driving this year has played a role in 23 fatal collisions, according to S.C. Department of Public Safety data. There have also been 1,836 collisions that involved injury, 4,621 collisions that involved property damage and 6,480 total collisions.

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study showed that text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-accident by 23 times.

Local motorist Steve Bryant said he travels regularly through Mount Pleasant from his home on Isle of Palms. He is concerned when he sees people texting behind the wheel, but he is not sure it is an issue for law enforcement.

“Add one more thing for the cops to look out for,” he said.

But he can see a public safety benefit.

“I guess I’m in favor of it. I guess do something to slow it down,” he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.