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COLUMBIA — South Carolina drivers could face stiff fines for holding a mobile device behind the wheel.

A group of state lawmakers, law enforcement officers, bikers and others concerned about distracted driving spoke in favor of a “driving under the influence of an electronic device,” or DUI-E, bill before a House transportation panel Tuesday.

“We’re not very good drivers in our state,” S.C. Department of Insurance Director Ray Farmer testified. “We need to learn to put the phone down.”

The bill proposes amending the state’s 2014 texting ban to make picking up a mobile device for any reason other than an emergency call while driving illegal, regardless of whether a vehicle is in motion or at a stoplight or sign.

The fine for distracted driving would be increased from $25 to $200. There will be no points placed on driving records for violations.

Currently, S.C. drivers cannot be punished for the use of a mobile device unless they are texting. Joe Lark, whose son-in-law was fatally struck by a distracted driver in 2017 in Spartanburg County, told the panel that the current law is weak.

“You cranked (the vehicle) to get from point A to point B, not to talk,” Lark said. “I know that a law will never bring my son-in-law back but it could help someone else from not having to suffer like we did.”

Cutting down on distracted driving accidents will lower insurance premiums, bill backers said.

“If losses are greater than income, (insurance companies) have got to up their income to cover the losses,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, a Republican from Aiken who sponsored the legislation.

A stricter law also would leave less of a grey area for law enforcement. Since only texting is illegal, officers have a tough time deciphering how drivers are using their phones.

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“Unless you stop someone and they confess, there’s really no way you can enforce the statute,” Major S.A. Stankus of the S.C. Department of Public Safety testified. “With the seatbelt law, you either have it on or you don’t. The new law would be like that — you’re either holding (the phone) or you’re not.”

If the bill passes, South Carolina will join 16 other states and the District of Columbia with hands-free driving laws. A similar bill reached the S.C. House floor last year but did not get a vote before the session ended.

Georgia State Rep. John Carson said that fatalities are down by 7 percent in Georgia since his state enacted a hands-free phone law. He urged South Carolina to follow Georgia’s lead.

“Driving is a privilege, it is not a Constitutional right, and driving with a cellphone is certainly not a right,” he said. “If you don’t want a ticket, don’t pick up the phone. It’s that simple.”

Taylor added at the end of the hearing, "It's not often you have a bill that will save peoples' lives."

The bill was approved by the transportation subcommittee Tuesday, a first step on the path to the House the floor.

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