COLUMBIA - South Carolina drivers should be subject to penalties and fines for texting while driving, a state Senate panel recommended Tuesday.
In the absence of a state law, municipalities have passed their own measures and created a hodgepodge of expectations across the state, senators said. The debate now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
South Carolina is one of just a handful of states without a state ban on texting while driving. It's a scenario senators say they hope to remedy during this legislative session.
Some on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considered the measure, raised objections to stiff penalties associated with the original proposal, and the penalties were reduced. Under the bill, S. 416, a first offense would mean a fine of $100 or offenders could take a distracted driving course and avoid the penalty. A second offense would cost drivers $200 and third and subsequent offenses $300. Three or more texting-while-driving convictions would also mean two points on an offender's driver's license per ticket.
Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said that the measure wouldn't accomplish much. Drivers have to be caught by police who must have an "unobstructed" view to write a ticket, and he said most would simply lower their phone a few inches to text.
Officers cannot seize or search a phone, which some committee members said would make the law difficult to enforce. Ultimately, senators said that it was worth a debate on the Senate floor.
The bill would create a uniform policy across the state and would trump local measures, including those in Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Greenville.
Charleston's ordinance is broader than the proposed state ban, and targets a host of distracted driving issues. Drivers cannot look down to scroll through music, or use a phone's GPS application while moving around town, unless the destination is plugged in before a car begins to move. Taking or sending photos is also banned.
Under the Senate measure, those using the GPS in parked or stopped vehicles, dialing a number or texting for emergency assistance, as well as entering a phone number or choosing a contact, would not be affected by the ban.
Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, told the committee that the bill didn't address a host of potential problems. "We're OK if people are using their phones to call somebody, we're OK if they're eating a sandwich," he said. "How is it that dialing a phone number is not just as dangerous as texting back the response 'yes'? You're hitting 10 potential digits instead of three."
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who sponsored the bill, said he recognizes there are other dangerous things people do behind the wheel.
"The bill is not perfect," he said. "There are many forms of distracted driving. This is not addressing all of them. It is addressing one of the more prevalent forms of distracted driving. What we were really trying to do is trying to narrow the focus and make this as simple as possible."
The committee also recommended a measure, S. 459, that would prohibit young drivers with beginner's permits or restricted licenses from talking on the phone.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.