End all behind the wheel device use, advocacy group says

One of the Lowcountry’s more visible environmental advocacy groups says the City of Charleston needs to ban all devices used by drivers behind the wheel.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, is holding a meeting Thursday at North Charleston City Hall, 2500 City Hall Lane, to build support for his bill that would ban texting behind the wheel statewide.

The meeting begins at 11 a.m. on the third floor in the Buist Conference Room.

A representative of the Coastal Conservation League said Monday that Charleston’s proposed text-only ban doesn’t go far enough to ensure road safety for all, and that the better step would be to make the city “hands-free” on mobile devices.

“All the local governments are looking to you,” CCL project manager Katie Zimmerman told members of City Council’s Traffic and Transportation Committee. “They are watching and waiting to see what the city of Charleston does.”

The ban should extend to include cyclists and skateboarders, Zimmerman said, to ensure there’s maximum safety for people in other cars, those who might be walking near roads or who are participating in an activity around traffic.

Mayor Joe Riley, though, said he is sticking with his support to prohibit text-only, citing both Mount Pleasant’s texting ban and the long moments of diversion that texting requires when a driver’s eyes leave the road.

“Uniformity in a region is better,” he said, adding that the act of texting is much different than talking while driving.

The comments came during a public hearing to gauge how the public feels. City Council, however, won’t take up the debate again until Sept. 24 after opting to postpone the discussion from the Tuesday night meeting agenda.

As proposed, Charleston’s ban would prohibit drivers from using hand-held devices behind the wheel for any form of texting, the reading of texts, e-mailing or typing. Simply talking on a cellphone while driving is not being targeted.

The fine for violators is set at $100, plus court costs. Enforcement would be done by city police officers who observe the practice.

The ban would cover any person in charge of a motor vehicle in motion on a public street or highway within the city limits. Exceptions include the operator of a motor vehicle that is lawfully parked or stopped, or a law enforcement officer, a member of a fire department or the operator of a public or private ambulance who is in the course of performing their official work duties.

For violators, no driver’s license penalty points would be assessed. Subpoenas for records from a phone company or time carrier could be pursued.

Several of those who spoke at the meeting said they had been victims of texting drivers. Stacie Katsibas of James Island said her mother was killed by a texting driver between Orangeburg and Columbia in 2010. The pain hasn’t gone away.

“It scares me for my family,” she said. “It scares me for other drivers.” She added, “I don’t want to be a victim of it again.”

Some said they had first-hand experiences. “He never looked up,” Jim Davis, of James Island, said of the texting man who struck him from behind. He also had no license or insurance at the time of the wreck. “He hit us at about 45 mph.”

The accident cost Davis thousands in repair costs and medical bills, while the driver got away with a fine in the hundreds of dollars range, he said.

Davis said he’d liked to see texting banned everywhere in the U.S. “but we’ll start with Charleston.”

Others, though, called for the city to not add more laws to the books and, instead, increase vigilance in enforcing the laws the city has now, including against distracted driving.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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