Hilton Head adopts texting while driving ban; open burning ban fails

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJuly 2, 2013 

Text while you're behind the wheel on Hilton Head Island and it could cost you as much as $300.

But not right away.

Hilton Head Island Town Council passed an ordinance banning the practice on a 4-1 vote Tuesday. While the law takes effect immediately, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said enforcement won't begin until after deputies have been educated about it.

Council member George Williams voted against the measure. Councilmen Bill Harkins and Lee Edwards were absent.

Motorists caught composing or reading electronic messages such as texts or emails on a cellphone or other electronic device within town limits could face misdemeanor fines. Those fines begin at $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for each subsequent violation.

The measure does not stop drivers from using GPS navigation, MP3 players or hands-free functions of a phone. It also does not restrict calls for emergency service.

Before any fines are issued, Tanner said Tuesday night, his department will educate staff about the law and how to enforce it. Then comes "educating the general public with traffic stops," he said. He said the department would also use school resource officers to spread the word about the ban to local teens.

Deputies will initially issue warnings, he said. He declined to say when they would begin making such traffic stops.

"I'm glad it passed," he said. "I think it's a good public safety measure and we'll move forward from here."

The town also will get the message out by submitting articles to local periodicals and sending letters to island high schools, said assistant town manager Greg DeLoach.

"The challenge is that you can educate a lot of residents on the island, but we have 2 million visitors a year," DeLoach said.

How to educate such visitors has been a concern of some council members, including Williams, who said he prefers a law passed at the state level.

South Carolina is one of only five states without restrictions on motorists using cell phones.

With Hilton Head's adoption of the ban, it becomes one of at least 10 municipalities -- including Beaufort -- that have adopted an ordinance restricting texting while driving.

BURNING BAN

A ordinance to ban open burning, which Williams called "probably the worst I've seen in my 12 years on Town Council," failed to pass Tuesday.

The measure failed 3-2 with Williams, Kim Likins and Mayor Drew Laughlin opposed. Marc Grant and John McCann voted for the ban.

Grant, who represents northern neighborhoods on the island where open burning is most prevalent, was once the ban's sharpest critic, but he said Tuesday that conversations with Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division chief Lavarn Lucas about wildfire and health risks have changed his mind.

"It took me a long time to come to peace with open burning," said Grant, who chairs the town's Public Safety Committee. "But I support this document to the full extent because I'm not the one out there fighting fires."

At issue Tuesday night were portions of the ordinance requiring residents to register outdoor fire pits and free-standing chimneys with the fire & rescue division.

The ordinance will be edited to exclude that requirement, according to DeLoach. It could then return to the council for another reading Aug. 6.

No council members objected to the original intent of the ordinance -- to ban the open burning of yard debris.

However some audience members, including native islander leader Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., said some residents are not able to hire a lawn service or remove yard waste themselves.

"It's critical that you ... seriously consider the situation for those persons on the north end of the island -- not in plantations -- who traditionally have burned their pine cones and small tree branches in a safe manner and have not created problems for the fire department," he said.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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