Bill banning texts advances

A bill banning drivers from text messaging on South Carolina's roads received tentative approval Wednesday from a Senate panel.

MELISSA HANELINE

COLUMBIA -- A bill banning drivers from text messaging on South Carolina's roads received tentative approval Wednesday from a Senate panel, after an effort to bar chatting with a cell phone in one hand failed.

The measure was unanimously sent to the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

The chairman of the three-member panel, Sen. Jake Knotts, tried to expand the bill -- initially limited to teen drivers under 18 -- to ban both texting and hand-held phone calls for drivers of all ages.

"You're just as dead if a person who's 60 hits you using a phone as a person under 18," said the West Columbia Republican. "Dead's dead, right?"

But the panel's other two members said the amendment went too far.

"I'm not willing to support a ban on hand-hand cell phones, but I do think texting is dangerous," said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who questioned whether phone use was any worse than other things that distract drivers, such as eating or putting on makeup.

Sen. Creighton Coleman initially agreed with Knotts, until he realized a driver couldn't go down the road with a phone at his ear. He thought it banned dialing, not talking.

"The diversion is when you're punching in the numbers," said the Winnsboro Democrat.

The panel has yet to decide a fine for violators. The senators plan to do so before the committee meeting.

Massey said the proposed $25 fine was too low to change drivers' habits.

"This isn't even a slap on the wrist," he said. "It's completely feel-good legislation, y'all. It doesn't do anything."

Knotts, a retired law enforcement officer, argued a texting-only ban would be difficult to enforce, especially since drivers can text with a phone in their lap. He said raising the fine too high would kill the bill.

"My concern is not where you draw the line but when you're killing people. Hand-held devices are a danger to society and the motorists of this state," he said. "It's past time to do it."

He said after the meeting he may try again in full committee to prohibit drivers from talking on a hand-held cell phone.

Department of Public Safety Director Mark Keel said texting is his greatest concern. A driver's eyes are off the road for the length of a football field while sending a 5-second text, he said, noting a young driver recently passed him on the highway with both hands on her cell atop the steering wheel, texting.

The debate could be a preview of the next House Education Committee meeting.

Last week, a House panel approved barring both texting and hand-held cell phone use, knowing that legislators would try to separate the issues in full committee.

That bill sets the fine at up to $100, with two points on a driving license. School bus drivers would face tougher penalties.