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Bill making it illegal to drive with a phone in hand advances in SC Senate

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A motorist uses a smartphone while waiting at a red light on Coming Street in Charleston. Holding a phone while driving would become illegal in South Carolina under a bill advancing in the Senate. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — Holding a phone while driving would become illegal in South Carolina under a bill advancing in the Senate after years of being blocked in the House. 

The bill sent to the Senate floor Jan. 19 would strengthen the state's eight-year-old ban on texting while driving, which supporters contend is unenforceable and largely useless as a deterrent.

Beyond expanding what's illegal, the bill would increase penalties from a $25 maximum fine to $100 on first offense, and $300 — plus two points against the driver's license — each additional time the driver is caught with a phone in hand.

Similar bills have died repeatedly in the House since 2017. In the interim, arguments about the difficulties of complying have largely become moot with the widespread use of smartphones and availability of inexpensive hands-free technology for people in older cars without Bluetooth capabilities, said its repeated sponsor, GOP Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken.  

"It's time. Very few people have a flip phone anymore," he told The Post and Courier following the vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.

"It takes time for people to break old habits," he continued. "But it doesn’t mean you can’t use your phone. You can use your phone. You can text by dictating. You can talk by speakerphone. You just can’t pick it up. It’s a step toward keeping people's eyes on the road."

Nationwide, 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia, already have a similar law, including neighboring Georgia. North Carolina bans all cellphone use by drivers under 18, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

South Carolina government already has a hands-free rule for public employees driving state-owned vehicles. Since 2015, the agency that oversees the state fleet has banned drivers from holding any electronic device — or even "watching the screen" — unless the vehicle is parked or 911 is being called. No disciplinary actions for violating the rule have been necessary, according to the state Department of Administration

Under the bill, signs would tell drivers of the hands-free rule as they enter the state on any interstate.

And it would send the Department of Public Safety 25 percent of all fines collected to pay for education campaigns on the rules and dangers of distracted driving.

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Last year, South Carolina troopers wrote 1,318 tickets for texting while driving, which, by law, requires that the officer personally witness the driver composing or sending a text. That compares to 46,279 tickets written for people not wearing their seat belts on South Carolina's highways, according to the Department of Public Safety. Local governments have their own ticket and offense rules as well.

Taylor said current law almost requires the driver to admit to the officer they were texting. Writing a ticket for distracted driving will be easier for officers, he said, since it won't matter how drivers use the phone in their hand, whether texting, using GPS, or reading emails. 

The bill has twice advanced to the House floor but never gotten a vote in that chamber. After opponents blocked debate in 2019, Taylor's fellow Aiken Republican, Sen. Tom Young, introduced the measure in the Senate. 

Hundreds of his constituents, who regularly cross into Augusta, Ga. — where they have to put the phone down — have asked him why South Carolina doesn't have a similar law, he said. 

"They say it’s not an inconvenience and we ought to be doing it in South Carolina too to save lives," Young said.

He thought it had a good chance of clearing that chamber in 2020, until the COVID pandemic cut all debate short.  

Sen. Wes Climer, R-Rock Hill, said it's been heartbreaking to hear the testimonies of people who lost loved ones due to distracted driving.

Asked what happens if a driver's hands-free technology is not working — or the driver doesn't know how to operate it — Climer said the person needs to pull over to use the phone.

It's a small inconvenience "in the interest of preserving innocent life," he said.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.