Beaufort officials might ban texting while driving, but it could be months before drivers have to quit the habit within city limits.
A first vote is planned for Aug. 28, and approval could come in early September, but City Council does not want to enforce a ban until the city staff and police develop an awareness campaign.
The ban is proposed by Councilman George O'Kelley Jr. and would prohibit cellphone use by drivers younger than 18 and texting by all drivers. Drivers who break the law would be cited and face fees starting at $50 and increasing to $150 for repeated violations, according to the ordinance.
"If we save a life, I don't care if they are convicted or not in court," O'Kelley said. "If we stop it, we can save an innocent person's life. And if word gets around that if you do this in the city you get in trouble -- that's a deterrent in itself."
A proposed statewide ban failed to pass the S.C. Senate before the General Assembly adjourned last month. O'Kelley's proposal is based on that version. It passed in the House of Representatives and would have made it illegal for drivers under 18 to talk on their cellphones or text while driving, and criminalized cellphone use for all drivers in construction and school zones.
Police Chief Matt Clancy said he sought advice from colleagues in cities and states with texting bans, and they recommended an education campaign for residents before a ban is enforced.
Drivers should be made aware that they must put the phone down when they enter the city, much like when driving onto Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Clancy said.
The Beaufort Police Department does not have statistics on crashes on local streets that involve texting, but it is a nationally recognized problem, he said. The National Safety Council estimated that about 21 percent of crashes involved drivers talking on the phone, and another 3 percent involved texting during 2010.
Six cities and towns in South Carolina have banned texting while driving, and Clancy said it can be difficult to enforce and convict violators. He is suggesting officers be allowed to check phones during a traffic stop when texting is suspected so the officers can collect information showing if and how the phone is being used. That information could later be used in court or to subpoena phone records.
"It helps officer and driver," Clancy said. "It proves one way or another what they were doing."
The ordinance in Clemson allows officers to seize a phone as evidence, which Clancy is not recommending.