Texting-while-driving ban given first round approval by Hilton Head council

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJune 18, 2013 

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

STAFF ILLUSTRATION

Hilton Head Island Town Council gave an initial thumbs up Tuesday to an ordinance banning texting while driving.

Despite their preference for a statewide law and concern over how an island measure would be enforced, council members voted 6-1, with George Williams dissenting, to approve the ordinance, which requires two readings to be adopted. The final reading is expected at council's July 2 meeting, according to town officials.

The proposed ordinance calls for a misdemeanor fine of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for each additional violation. It would ban motorists from composing or reading electronic messages, such as texts or emails, on a cellphone or other electronic device while driving within town limits.

The measure would not, however, prevent drivers from making calls or using GPS navigation, audio players or hands-free functions of a phone. Requests for emergency service would also be exempt.

"The fact remains that this is an extremely dangerous practice," Mayor Drew Laughlin said during Tuesday's council meeting. "If ... there is an ordinance in place that causes anyone to voluntarily comply, or if it helps one parent get his child not to do it because it is illegal, then it is a worthwhile exercise."

Williams disagreed, calling the proposal a "feel-good ordinance" that will be rarely enforced until a statewide law sets a statewide standard.

Several bills were introduced in the General Assembly during the recently ended session, though none passed.

The island proposal is modeled after a S.C. House bill that received the most support during the legislative, according to staff attorney Brian Hulbert.

Some council member agreed with some of what Williams said.

"I agree that it should be done on a statewide level," said Councilman Lee Edwards, "but I read a bumper sticker one time that said, 'If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.

"And I'm hoping that if yet another municipality says 'we want to ban texting,' then hopefully ... they (the General Assembly) will get the message."

South Carolina is one of only five states without restrictions on texting or cellphone use while driving. If the town adopts the ordinance, it would become the state's eight municipality -- including the city of Beaufort -- to ban the practice.

There were also concerns about how the measure would be enforced.

Proving that a driver was texting while driving could require a subpoena of the suspect's cellphone records, Hulbert said, a process that could take several months.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that education is key. One way to do that, he said, is to issue warning tickets.

School resource officers could also spread the word on the law to area high school students, Tanner said.

Despite those difficulties, supporting the ban is "the right thing to do" and will make the island's roads safer, he said.

"If it acts as a deterrent -- which I know it will -- then we are ahead of the game," he said.

If the ordinance passes next month, the ban would go into effect immediately, according to town manager Steve Riley. He said there is currently no money in the budget earmarked for an education effort.

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