COLUMBIA -- This might be the year when South Carolina legislators join a national effort to ban motorists behind the wheel from sending text messages or holding a cell phone to talk.
For several years, legislation has been filed in the Statehouse to require hands-free cell phones while driving or to stop teen drivers from using cell phones. Each year the bills have died as questions are raised about how to enforce such bans.
This year, the proposals have more momentum than ever.
A House subcommittee on Wednesday voted 6-0 to advance a bill to stop drivers from texting and using hand-held phones. The panel also agreed, at the suggestion of Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, to forbid bus drivers from using cell phones when they take children to and from school, except in an emergency.
"What we all know, from a public-safety standpoint, is that the numbers show that it's dangerous to do," Department of Public Safety Director Mark Keel said.
Distracted and inattentive driving contributed to nearly 6,000 roadway deaths nationwide in 2008, and more than a half million injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Under the bill's proposals, drivers would be charged with a misdemeanor, fined $100 and assessed two points on their license for each offense.
Money from the fines would be directed to state trauma care efforts and the Office of Highway Safety at the Public Safety Department.
The penalties for school bus drivers would be more severe.
The bill will now go to the full Education and Public Works Committee. It is one of a handful of bills before the Legislature this year to impose such restrictions on drivers.
Nineteen states impose bans on text-messaging while driving, six restrict hand-held cell phone use, 23 limit teen drivers' cell phone use and 17 have laws that apply to school bus drivers, according to AAA Carolinas. Washington, D.C,, imposes all those bans.
About 50 countries also ban cell phones while driving without hands-free devices.
As of this week, the South Carolina Departments of Transportation and Public Safety will enforce a new ban prohibiting its employees from texting while driving a state vehicle.
Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, said that he supports the state restricting text-messaging, but limiting cell phone use in the car might be a step too far.
By the numbers
73: The percentage of drivers in 2008 who used their cell phones while behind the wheel.
1 in 5: The number of drivers overall who admit to not devoting their full attention to the road.
4: The number of times more likely a crash will occur when a driver uses a cell phone compared to when a driver doesn't.
2,600: The number of people who died nationwide in 2008 in crashes that involved cell phone use.
0.08: The percentage of blood alcohol content that constitutes drunken driving, the same level of impairment as drivers who use cell phones.
20: The percentage of drivers in 2008 who sent text messages while on the road.
— AAA Carolinas
AAA Carolinas reports that 19 states ban text-messaging while driving and six require hands-free devices. Other Southeastern states have restrictions in place, including:
Georgia, school bus drivers; Louisiana, texting, teens, school bus drivers; Mississippi, teens; N. Carolina, texting, teens and school bus drivers; Tennessee, texting, teens and school bus drivers; Virginia, texting, teens and school bus drivers.