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It could soon be illegal to even hold a cellphone while driving in South Carolina

Texting while driving now illegal statewide in SC (copy) (copy)

South Carolina was the 49th state to ban texting in 2014. But drivers can still talk on the phone, use their GPS and legally text while stopped. Photo Illustration/Staff

COLUMBIA — Advocates for a bill toughening the state's texting-while-driving ban argue the distraction is more dangerous than drunken driving. 

Under legislation discussed by a House panel Tuesday, "driving under the influence of an electronic device," or DUI-E, would be punishable by a $100 fine on first offense. Additional tickets would cost $300 plus 2 points on a driver's license, bringing potentially higher insurance costs, too. 

"South Carolina's current texting ban doesn’t work," said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken. The $25 fine, which never increases, "is hardly much of a fine, but worse yet, it's unenforceable." 

The state's 2014 law made it illegal to write or send a text while driving, but drivers can still talk on the phone and use their GPS. Taylor said that gives offenders legal excuses, so officers won't write a ticket unless the driver admits to texting.    

His bill, which also removes the ability to legally text while stopped, makes enforcement easy, he said: If a driver is holding a phone, that person can be ticketed. 

"It's real simple. Put the phone down. Put your hands on the wheel, and drive," Taylor said.

The bill would still allow talking on the phone through a hands-free device or in-vehicle wireless system. It maintains current law that drivers can't be arrested for the violation, and their phones can't be seized. 

The House panel took no vote. They ran out of time, with more people wanting to testify. No one spoke against the bill. A second hearing could be as early as next week. 

Joe Mark of Inman said his son-in-law, Jeff Pierce, was fatally struck last July while bicycling. The distracted driver, who was traveling more than 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, told officers she wasn't texting, but witnesses said she had a phone to her ear and appeared to be talking, Mark said.

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"DUI-E drivers are a menace" worse than DUI drivers, Mark said. "A drunk is only concerned with getting home or to the next bar, and he's going to do it with both hands on the wheel and looking straight ahead." 

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar hands-free laws, said AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Tiffany Wright. 

"It has become an epidemic," she said. "Hands free doesn't necessarily mean distraction free, but it's a step in the right direction." 

And while many drivers assume it's safe to text while at a red light — as current law allows — studies show their minds are still distracted nearly 30 seconds after putting the phone down, she said. 

"Just because the light is green doesn't mean your brain is green," Wright said.  

Kelly Willenberg of Spartanburg said her husband, Dale, was fatally struck last June, also while cycling, by a driver who claimed he looked down at his cellphone for only a second.

"My husband paid the price," she told the panel, adding she'd like the bill to go further. "You can make South Carolina's roads safer. Please, please, please do so."  

The 2014 law followed years of debate and superseded more than 20 differing local ordinances. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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