A two-year-old South Carolina law prohibiting texting while driving has been enforced lightly — and sometimes not at all — while safety advocates say the behavior can be more dangerous than driving drunk.
North Charleston, the state's third-largest city, has not ticketed a single driver. Charleston, despite pledging tough enforcement at the end of 2013 when the city had its own anti-texting ordinance, has ticketed fewer than three dozen drivers since that time.
Mount Pleasant, the state's fourth-largest city, has ticketed more than twice as many drivers as Charleston but has averaged fewer than five citations per month since the state law took effect two years ago.
"Even if it’s just one a week, maybe that’s one accident that’s been avoided," said Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page. “The bigger story for me is, really just being more mindful while driving … just focus on what you are doing."
During the two years the state law has been in place, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety has collected statistics on more than 250 accidents where state or local police said texting played a role. Those accidents injured 122 people and killed one, and the number of texting-related collisions has been increasing every year.
S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres said he believes texting-related accidents are under-reported because drivers involved in a collision are unlikely to admit they were texting, and police might classify the accidents as being related to driver inattention or another factor other than texting.
The state law took effect in December 2014 and replaced multiple city-level bans that were in most cases tougher. South Carolina was one of the last states to outlaw texting while driving and also has one of the nation's lightest penalties.
The S.C. law requires police to observe a driver texting while the car is moving. The penalty involves no points against a driver's license, no notification to the driver's insurance company and a $25 fine.
In many towns and cities, tossing a cellphone out the window of a car — littering — could result in a fine plus court costs of more than $1,000.
Even when some towns and cities did have tougher bans in place, enforcement was limited.
Charleston approved a citywide texting-while-driving ban in 2013 and tough enforcement of the ordinance, which carried a $100 fine, was promised starting that December. But that month city police issued one ticket. Then another one in January, one more in February and none in March or April — three tickets in five months. From December 2013 through July 2016, South Carolina's second-largest city issued a total of 45 tickets.
That's 45 more tickets than North Charleston. The city did not have an anti-texting-while-driving ordinance of its own, and has ticketed no one under the statewide law passed in 2014.
Asked to explain the city's lack of enforcement, North Charleston Police Department spokesman Spencer Pryor said the department's only response would be: "The department did not issue any citations for texting while driving during the time frame."
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he disapproves of texting while driving but the city's police officers are busy responding to calls and pulling people over for speeding or driving unsafe vehicles.
The mayor noted that the city has recently faced criticism for traffic stops for minor violations.
“They don’t even want us to stop people for a tail light out," Summey said.
The city had earned a reputation for aggressive policing practices, stopping and ticketing people frequently for breaking laws as obscure as failing to have a bell on a bicycle (a state law until 2009, which also carried a $25 fine). More recently, the number of traffic stops by North Charleston police has plunged.
Mount Pleasant had an anti-texting ordinance before the state law was passed, and the town produced an anti-texting video at the time, but only two tickets were issued under the ordinance. Recently, enforcement has picked up, and the town Police Department created a new, light-hearted video in December to warn people about the dangers of texting and driving.
“I think it’s good that our guys are enforcing it," Page said. "It’s obviously not about the revenue."
Advocates hope that, even with weak penalties, the texting law will lead to changes in driver behavior, as was the case with seat belt use.
"We have to change driver behavior and continue promoting awareness of the dangers of this practice," said Tiffany Wright, president of AAA Carolinas Traffic Safety Foundation. "Texting can be just as dangerous as or even worse than drunk driving.”
In 2016, Mount Pleasant police issued an average of eight tickets each month for texting while driving — four times the prior year's average, which was under two per month.
The town issued a cumulative total of 109 tickets through November 2016. That may not sound like much, but the town now accounts for 5 percent of all tickets issued for the offense statewide, while the town holds less than 2 percent of the state's population.
Statewide, an average of 99 tickets were issued monthly this year through November, by all state and local agencies, and more than 2,000 since the law took effect.
As detailed statistics from Mount Pleasant Municipal Court show, even with just a $25 fine, many tickets go uncollected. In the town, 40 percent of all texting-while-driving citations have gone uncollected because the people ticketed did not pay or show up in court.
In addition to state regulations, federal workers have been prohibited from texting while operating government vehicles or equipment since 2009, and commercial truck and bus drivers who text have faced "civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750" since early 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Diane Knich contributed to this report.