Lawmakers want to keep the eyes of South Carolina drivers on the road and off their cellphones. A recent report about the apparent failings of a cellphone ban for teen drivers in North Carolina might finally help them do it.
Researchers from the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina say many N.C. teens are ignoring a 2006 state law that barred cellphone use by drivers under 18 and that many more are engaging in the hazardous -- and sometimes deadly -- practice of texting and driving.
Some state lawmakers hope to use the findings to pass a cellphone ban in South Carolina, which remains one of only six states where it is legal for all drivers to text while driving.
Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, was a co-sponsor of a recent bill that would have made it illegal for drivers under 18 to talk or text while driving and to criminalize cellphone use for all drivers in construction and school zones.
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The proposal passed the S.C. House of Representatives but failed to earn Senate approval before the General Assembly adjourned last month, according to state records.
Herbkersman said studying the apparent failings of the N.C. ban could help state lawmakers draft and pass a more effective law.
"Information is power," Herbkersman said. "This study could help point us in a better direction. One of the best things that we can do is learn from other people's mistakes."
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he supported a texting ban for all drivers as long as the law allowed the use of headsets and other hand-free devices.
In the UNC study, researchers observed the driving behavior of teens in North Carolina in 2006 and repeated the observations two years later after the cellphone ban was passed. A researcher was stationed at the exit of a high school parking lot and noted whether each driver was talking or physically manipulating a phone, presumably texting.
In their observations, overall cellphone use among the teen drivers decreased slightly in the two years after the law passed, from 11 percent to 9.7 percent. But the number of texting teen drivers in North Carolina rose about 40 percent.
N.C. Sen. Stan Bingham, a sponsor of the ban, was disappointed by the findings, but not surprised.
"We've passed a law that's impossible to enforce," Bingham told the (Raleigh) News & Observer. "This study will be used to aid future legislation."
In 2011, the N.C. Highway Patrol issued just 22 citations.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said a similar ban in South Carolina could be equally tricky to enforce, though he believes the state needs one.
"It's easy for us to spot someone not wearing their seatbelt or not having a child in a car seat, but it's going to be harder to see if someone has their phone in their lap or in the passenger seat or what they are doing with their hands," Tanner said. "(Texting while driving) is an absolute problem and not just with teens, with everyone. I see it every day."
The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.