South Carolina lawmakers have voted to ban texting while driving, likely ending a four-year fight in the Statehouse.
Both the state House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a compromise measure Wednesday afternoon that makes it illegal to send, read, or compose text messages while driving. The Senate voted 44-2, while the House voted 94-2 in favor of the bill.
South Carolina is currently one of seven states without any kind of ban on cell phone use behind the wheel.
“Texting is the new driving while under the influence of alcohol.” State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said. “It is overtaking the rate of wreck incidents where alcohol used to be the problem… Folks texting while driving causes inattention and impaired ability to react in time.”
Under the proposed law, offenders will receive a $25 fine, but no penalty points on their license. The fine could go up to $50 for repeated violations. A driver could still text if their vehicle is parked or completely stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. The bill still allows drivers to talk on their phone and use hands-free devices to communicate so long as it does not involve texting.
The bill now goes to Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been mum on whether she supports it or not. Haley has previously said she would prefer drivers change their behavior without an outright ban, but did not say she would veto it.
For State Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, the bill’s passage ends his four-year effort to ban the practice. Bowen had been the chief sponsor of proposed bans each year since 2010 and slowly built support for his position over time. He said a big factor in the shift has been several cities and towns (including Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville, among others) passing bans that varied by county.
“I thought if we got enough towns having different types of texting bills, that might be the impetus for the group down here getting together and having an overriding (law),” Bowen said.
If it takes effect, South Carolina’s law would supersede each of the municipal bans.
The compromise legislation also satisfied opponents of the idea by requiring an officer to physically observe the driver texting and not allowing them to search the cell phone of a suspected violator. Bowen said the penalty is also relatively lighter than what he originally wanted.
Last month, the House tacked on the statewide ban to a more limited bill by State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, which would have banned cell phones only for drivers with a beginner’s permit or restricted license. Sheheen supported the expanded legislation, however.
“The ban will help protect the people of South Carolina, clear up confusing and irregular local regulations, and make our roads safer around the state,” he said in a statement. “The passage today is a major step forward for South Carolina and is a testament to what we can accomplish to improve people’s lives through honest leadership and a common-sense approach to government.”