COLUMBIA - The S.C. House passed what could be South Carolina's first statewide texting-while-driving ban on Wednesday, even though some House members said they had deep reservations about the measure.
The House bill passed 97-16. Lawmakers say that it or a similar measure is the best chance in years to put into place the state's first statewide texting ban. Municipalities, including Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Greenville, have filled the void by passing their own measures in recent years. The statewide ban, H. 4386, would trump any similar local bans.
The bill calls for a $25 fine - the same as not wearing a seat belt - and bans police from seizing, searching or viewing a driver's cell phone.
House members put up a series of amendments to lessen penalties and restrict police.
"If you don't think we're cutting into our liberty, I want you to rethink that," said Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, who voted for the bill with the reduced penalty.
South Carolina and Montana are the only states that don't have any distracted driving laws on the books, according to Distraction.gov, part of a federal campaign to build awareness around the issue.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he hopes a final bill includes stronger penalties. "The bottom line is I'm fine not having this not be a jailable offense, but we can do better than this," Stavrinakis said.
The bill will now move to the S.C. Senate, where legislators have expressed a desire for stricter penalties. Senators have contemplated a measure that would mean stiff fines and points on a driver's license, although those specifics are likely to change as the debate continues.
Senators have said that given the hodgepodge of laws local cities have passed, the state needs a uniform measure.
The city of Charleston's ordinance targets more distracted driving issues than what state legislators have contemplated. Drivers cannot look down to scroll through music, use a phone's GPS while moving, or take or send photos.
Earlier Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill, 38-2, aimed at the youngest drivers. The bill, S. 459, bans anyone with a beginner's permit or conditional driver's license from using a phone at all. That bill moves to the House for consideration.
Both distracted driving measures will be part of both chambers' long list of items to pore through before the legislative session is scheduled to end in June.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.