COLUMBIA- A new law makes South Carolina the 49th state to ban texting while driving.
A statewide ban on writing, sending or reading a text while driving took effect Monday when Gov. Nikki Haley signed the law. It is among dozens of new laws the Republican governor has signed since the legislative session officially ended.
The ban supersedes at least 19 differing city and two county ordinances on texting, creating consistency across the state. Montana is now the only state without a statewide ban.
"At least we have an overall texting bill that makes the entire state exactly the same. The way it was, nobody knew what the texting law was when they drove from one county to the next," said Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, who's fought for a statewide ban since 2010. He wanted stronger penalties but recognized those wouldn't pass.
In a state that relishes personal freedoms, legislators have long balked at telling people what they can hold in their hands while in their vehicles. In killing similar measures in the past, legislators argued operating a phone behind the wheel was no more hazardous than eating, putting on makeup, or fiddling with the radio.
But the increasing number of local ordinances prompted them to pass something. The law is a compromise between the chambers' differing versions. The proposal that passed the Senate applied only to young drivers with a beginner's or restricted license. The House debate centered on ensuring officers could not confiscate or search someone's phone.
Tom Crosby, spokesman for AAA Carolinas, called the compromise a watershed law for South Carolina.
"In a state not well-known for regulating behind-the-wheel behavior, legislators are saying, 'Your decisions behind the wheel have consequences for everyone because you endanger everyone else as well as yourself,"' Crosby said. "It's a great start."
According to AAA, South Carolina becomes one of 44 states and the District of Columbia to ban texting while driving for all ages.
South Carolina's law still allows people to text if they are legally stopped or using a hands-free device. It also specifically permits using GPS navigation.
A violation is not a crime, nor can it be reported to the driver's insurer. The maximum fine is $50. Officers can write only warnings for the first six months, meaning a fine can't be levied until mid-December.
Opponents call the law unenforceable. Officers can't stop someone for the violation unless they have a "clear and unobstructed view" of a driver using a device to compose, send or read a text.
But proponents say the law will help educate people on the dangers of texting behind the wheel.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the main sponsor of the Senate bill, said the law will make roads safer.
"This texting and driving ban will save more lives than any other action by state government in years," said Sheheen, D-Camden.