Texting-while-driving ban discussed on Hilton Head

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMarch 17, 2013 

01/08/09- Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette


So far, the city of Beaufort remains the only municipality in the county that has banned texting while driving, but the issue has received some brief attention from the Hilton Head Island Town Council.

The issue was raised by resident Joe Kopf, who gave a presentation to the council March 4 about the dangers of texting and using cellphones while driving.

Kopf said he took up the cause after a friend's child was seriously hurt in a car accident in which texting while driving was a factor.

"I just think it's important to stop it before someone else gets hurt," he said.

Council members seemed to relate to Kopf's plea.

"When you see somebody doing 75 down the interstate and you see they've got both of their thumbs on their phone, ... it doesn't give you a very good feeling," said Mayor Drew Laughlin.

But council members also weren't sure it is the town's place to enact a ban.

Councilman George Williams said he supports a ban, but believes it should come from the state legislature.

Councilman Marc Grant, however, said the topic might be discussed more by the Public Safety Committee, which he chairs.

Kopf said he plans to lobby Grant's committee to discuss the ban further.

South Carolina is one of only six states without laws restricting texting and driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Judiciary Committee in the state House of Representatives is reviewing a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, that would ban texting while driving.

Similar bills have passed the House, including one last year, but none has won Senate approval.

However, Erickson thinks the current bill has a better chance of passage.

That's because it adds texting while driving to existing definitions of careless and reckless driving, rather than enforcing it as a separate offense.

Erickson said the bill hasn't been a priority this legislative session, but it might be discussed after budget discussions end in a few months.

Without a state law, council members Williams and Kim Likins said they were concerned about whether the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, which provides law enforcement on Hilton Head, could effectively enforce a ban on the island but not elsewhere in the county.

Such a situation, however, would not be uncommon, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.

"Every municipality has their own set of ordinances that apply to the municipality itself," Tanner said. For example, smoking in bars and restaurants was banned in unincorporated Beaufort County before it was on Hilton Head.

Tanner said he would support a ban of texting while driving, though it is just one of many bad habits that distract drivers.

"I have seen just about every bad habit you could imagine by people while operating a motor vehicle," he said. "Driver inattention is the leading cause for car accidents statewide."

In November, the city of Beaufort began enforcing an ordinance banning drivers 18 years and younger from any cellphone use and texting and emailing for all drivers. The first offense brings a $50 fine, and subsequent violations are $150.

Since then, the Beaufort Police Department has issued 20 warnings and four tickets.

"I believe it's helping," said Maj. Dale McDorman, who said he sees fewer drivers paying more attention to their phones than the road.

He said officers use common sense and can usually tell when drivers are texting, based on how long and how often the drivers look down at their phones.

"It's not our goal to write a bunch of tickets," McDorman said. "We're trying to educate and put the word out about how dangerous it is."

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

Related content:

First day of Beaufort's texting-while-driving ban brings no citations, Nov. 10, 2012

Surveys show more drivers surf the Web on the road; Beaufort County officials agree, Nov. 22, 2013

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