COLUMBIA - South Carolina joined the majority of the nation last week when the General Assembly passed a ban on texting while driving.
The measure - which awaits Gov. Nikki Haley's signature - was celebrated by lawmakers as an acceptance of the reality that texting while driving can lead to fatal car crashes. But a Lowcountry representative, who has been pushing for a texting ban for years, says the current measure's penalty is just "a joke."
If signed by Haley, the law calls for a $25 fine and no more than $50 for multiple violations. It's also a civil infraction, meaning no points will be assessed to the offender's driver's license.
"That's a slap on the wrist," said Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. "It's a start, but it's still a joke."
Gilliard said he became a crusader for the ban when he ran a red light while texting. He said he was so startled by the incident, he had to pull over to regain his composure. Since then, Gilliard says he's held seminars on the issue and has introduced multiple bills to get other drivers to stop the practice.
But Gilliard believes drivers will not take seriously the measure that passed last Wednesday because of the low fine. He also believes the General Assembly isn't taking seriously the ramifications of texting while behind the wheel, either.
Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, said several lawmakers approached him after the bill passed with concerns over the measure's $25 penalty. Daning was appointed to a committee tasked with hashing out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Daning agreed it should have been a stronger bill; initially it called for fines of $100 for the first offense, and $100 plus a two-point assessment to the offender's driver's license for the second offense. But no one stepped up when House members amended the bill to a $25 penalty, he said.
"That was the amendment that was put on the floor," Daning said. "We lost. The other side won."
The "other side" he refers to are lawmakers who argued that when the state passed a seatbelt law, people started complying. South Carolina's seatbelt law is also a civil infraction of $25.
The seatbelt law is effective at getting people to buckle up, said Tom Crosby, AAA spokesman. Some people obey the law just because it's the law, regardless of the cost of the citation, he said.
"We're hoping it's going to have an effect," said Crosby of the texting ban. "It's certainly better than no law at all."
Yet, stronger laws do curb the behavior more effectively, said Jose Ucles, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But it's up to each state to decide how to address the issue.
"NHTSA believes that strong laws, with police enforcement, with education, do produce results," Ucles said. "This is a good start."
Much progress has been made since Washington became the first state to ban the practice in 2007, Ucles said. The bans are slowly making a difference.
Past efforts to pass a statewide ban had failed in South Carolina. To fill the void, local governments around the state banned the practice, including Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Columbia and Greenville. State law will trump those local measures.
But local municipalities will still have the option to issue citations under local ordinances, said Inspector Chip Googe, spokesman for the Mount Pleasant Police Department. Since Mount Pleasant passed its ban in September, officers have issued five citations and six warnings. The penalty for the town-issued citation is $50, or $200 if it involves a crash.
"Taking your eyes off the road, while you're trying to compose a message, it's just dangerous," Googe said. "You need to pay attention to what's going on."
Gilliard promises to return to the General Assembly next year prepared to make amendments to the statewide ban and stiffen its penalties.
"We are losing lives," Gilliard said. "Until it's your son or your daughter, or your mom or your dad, then and only then you realize how serious this issue is. Don't wait until you have a sad story to tell."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.