Don't unduly delay enforcing texting ban

info@islandpacket.comJuly 31, 2013 

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

Beaufort County's move toward a texting while driving ban is welcome news.

A ban that reaches more of the county should increase the likelihood of drivers following it and make enforcement easier for Beaufort County deputies, who work across jurisdictional lines.

But on the subject of enforcement, we're troubled by Sheriff P.J. Tanner's statement that he won't enforce the Town of Hilton Head Island's texting ban, which went into effect July 2, until Town Council makes a fix to the law that he wants.

That doesn't seem right: The sheriff telling people who make the laws when he's going to enforce a law and what he wants in it.

Tanner already had told town officials he wouldn't start enforcing the ordinance until deputies were properly trained, and he said he would start with warning tickets. Training is important, and a law like this, where officials are trying to change behavior, should start with warnings and educating the public. That's what the city of Beaufort did when it passed its texting ban ordinance last November.

But now Tanner's troubled by the fact that Hilton Head's ordinance doesn't exempt law enforcement officers and first responders while they are on duty. He said Tuesday that his department wouldn't write tickets as long as deputies and other emergency workers would be violating the rules while doing their jobs.

We applaud a desire to be even-handed, but is this the way to go? Don't enforce a law on the books until it's the way you want it?

We also know officers exercise some discretion in traffic enforcement in general, and we agree that specific circumstances should come into play and officers should be able to use their judgment. But this seems to go a step beyond that.

Certainly, the town has taken Tanner's views into consideration as it developed its ordinance. It is based on a state House bill that is considered likely to pass. Tanner has said he favors a statewide approach to texting while driving bans, as do we. The town's ordinance copies the House bill, which also doesn't exempt law enforcement and first responders on duty. The city of Beaufort ordinance does exempt them.

Tanner asked county officials on Tuesday to include such an exemption, and the County Council committee considering an ordinance instructed county attorney Josh Gruber to do so. Hilton Head's attorney, Brian Hulbert, said he was writing an amendment to the town ordinance and expected it to be considered by Town Council in September.

That's all well and good, but we'd like that consideration to include a discussion of whether exempting law enforcement officers and first responders from a ban on using electronic devices to communicate while driving is a good idea. How essential is it to the performance of their duties? Is there an alternative?

After all, distracted driving is distracted driving no matter who's at the wheel.

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