SC texting ban racing against end-of-session deadline

ccope@thestate.comMay 28, 2014 

Selling The Capitol

The South Carolina Statehouse

BRUCE SMITH — AP

  • Money for roads? Maybe, maybe not

    As the Legislature gets closer to adjourning next week, each day is one day closer to proposals dying.

    Consider a bill designed to increase state money for road repairs by directing all the state sales tax on vehicles to the state Department of Transportation. The current sales tax is 5 percent of a vehicle’s cost or $300, whichever is lower.

    State senators voted against taking up the House proposal Wednesday, moving it one day closer to death.

    Proposed amendments to the bill include increasing fees for driver’s licenses and license plates, and an increase to the state gas tax.

    Still, Sen. Raymond Cleary, R-Georgetown, the Senate’s main champion of the bill, said Wednesday the issue could be decided next week. “We have plenty of time.”

    However, senators have yet to take it up and the Legislature’s countdown clock is ticking.

    “Unfortunately, it appears that our chances are very slim in getting a highway funding bill passed, but we will continue to try until we adjourn next week,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a proponent of the proposal.

— S.C. lawmakers are getting closer to banning texting while driving statewide. But they face a deadline – Thursday of next week – if they are going to accomplish that goal.

The problem? Senators and state representatives disagree on what a ban should look like.

The Senate’s texting-while-driving ban would apply only to drivers with beginner’s or restricted licenses. The House wants the ban to apply to all drivers.

About 20 S.C. cities, towns and counties have their own bans, including Columbia, Charleston and Greenville, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina. Advocates say a statewide policy is needed to ease the confusion of drivers traveling from one part of the state – with no ban – to the next – with a ban.

“We need continuity and uniformity across the cities and the counties,” said state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, a sponsor of the bill.

A texting-while-driving ban has been debated for years, and 43 other states ban all drivers from text messaging, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In the version of the ban that would apply to all S.C. drivers, the law would not apply to drivers parked or stopped legally, using a hands-free device or seeking emergency assistance. The law also would not apply to those using a global-positioning-system device, or GPS feature, on a phone.

But state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, raised concerns about how a statewide ban would be enforced and about racial profiling.

Senators who support the ban say their concern is safety.

Studies have shown that texting while driving is just as dangerous as drunken driving, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a sponsor of the statewide ban.

If passed into law, violators could be fined between $25 and $50 for one or more violations.

The fines are not heavy because, like the state’s seat-belt law, they are not designed to raise money, Alexander said. Instead, the law is intended as a deterrent, to get drivers to change their habits.

The Senate voted Wednesday to send the differing texting-ban proposals to a joint House-Senate conference committee.

“We have a great chance of passing a statewide ban,” Lourie said, despite the fact the Legislature is racing against its adjournment next Thursday.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he expects to get the conference committee’s report back to the Senate by early next week. Then, senators and representatives would vote on its recommendation.

If either the House or Senate does not get to the bill next week, lawmakers could pick the proposal up when they come back for an extended veto session on June 17.

Martin said Thursday’s Senate vote was a move toward making it unlawful to text while driving.

“This moves the ball forward,” he said.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657

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