COLUMBIA - South Carolina joined the majority of the nation on Wednesday when the General Assembly passed a ban on texting while driving.
The ban will prevent all drivers from texting while their vehicle is in motion. The bill now heads for Gov. Nikki Haley's desk and will become effective if and when she signs it.
"Without a doubt, this is a great day for the lives of all drivers and passengers in South Carolina," said Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway. "Finally we catch up with the rest of the country in acknowledging a white-and-black reality - texting while driving kills."
Past efforts to pass a statewide ban had failed. To fill the void, local governments around the state banned the practice, including Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Columbia and Greenville. State law will trump local measures.
Haley's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether she intends to sign the bill or not. If it becomes law, drivers will be given a six-month grace period to adapt to the law and will be only given warnings during that time.
Rankin also clarified on Wednesday the law will allow for drivers to use their phone to text if they have stopped at a traffic light. Pulling off to the side of the road is still preferred, he added. The penalty for texting while driving will be civil and cost $25.
Tom Crosby, spokesman for AAA, said the ban's passage means lawmakers are placing the safety of the public over that of individual choices.
"Highways are publicly owned and public safety rules - not individual rights," Crosby said. "It's just such a dangerous behavior. It's much more dangerous than drunk driving according to some studies."
Indeed, Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith said sending a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds; at 55 mph, that would be the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blind, he said.
"At the end of the day I really believe that it will enhance public safety," Smith said. "We believe this a good thing."
Smith added that law enforcement officers and drivers used to assume drivers swerving on the road were likely intoxicated. Now, however, motorists are often pushed out of their lanes by drivers who are texting.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, sponsored one of several bills that called on a texting ban. He said the passing of the measure sends a message to younger drivers.
"I think people know in their heart that they shouldn't be texting while driving," Sheheen said. "The ban will help protect the people of South Carolina, clear up confusing and irregular local regulations, and make our roads safer around the state."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.