Beaufort County committee endorses texting ban; enforcement of Hilton Head's ban delayed for changes, sheriff says
A proposal to prohibit drivers from texting or using other electronic communications while behind the wheel was endorsed Tuesday by a Beaufort County Council committee.
The measure is similar to an ordinance adopted earlier this month by the Town of Hilton Head Island. But enforcement of that ordinance will be delayed until changes are made to exempt emergency responders and sheriff's deputies, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
"Until that language is appropriate in the ordinance, we are not enforcing anything," Tanner said Tuesday.
County Council's Governmental Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to send the texting ban to the full council for consideration. It would apply only to unincorporated parts of the county. Committee members opted not to wait for the S.C. legislature to pass a statewide texting ban.
"I would like to see us have our own ordinance in place and not wait for the state to do what it's going to do," said Councilwoman Laura Von Harten, whose district includes portions of Beaufort, Port Royal and unincorporated Burton.
Councilman Gerald Dawson, whose district includes most of unincorporated Dale, Lobeco and Sheldon, agreed.
"I concur that something needs to be done. Texting while driving is an accident waiting to happen and could involve any of us or our family members or any citizen," he said.
The city of Beaufort also has a texting ban, which took effect last fall. It also prohibits people under 18 from using a cellphone while driving within city limits. Hilton Head's ordinance bars motorists from composing or reading electronic messages, such as texts or emails, within town limits. It does not prevent drivers from using GPS navigation, MP3 players or hands-free phone functions. Requests by motorists for emergency service also are exempt under the ban.
TANNER WANTS CHANGE
Tanner urged the county to exempt on-duty first-responders from the ban, telling the committee that those officials routinely use mobile electronics to answer calls and communicate with dispatch. The committee asked staff attorney Josh Gruber to include such an exemption in the county's proposal.
Tanner said he won't issue tickets on Hilton Head as long as deputies and other emergency workers would be violating the rules, as written, while performing their duties.
Brian Hulbert, Hilton Head's staff attorney, said he is writing an amendment to the town's texting ordinance. He expected it would reach Town Council for consideration in September.
"We'll make it clear so there is no question (that) ... public safety is excluded and they can use electronic communications devices during the performance of their duties," Hulbert said.
The county's current proposal includes fines that begin at $100 for the first offense and are capped at $300 for third and subsequent offenses.
County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch initially proposed reducing the fines to $25 for the first offense due to concerns about economic hardship for violators. She later agreed to keep fines starting at $100 after Tanner backed the higher penalties.
It isn't immediately clear when the proposal will be discussed by County Council. As with any ordinance, the measure will need three readings and a public hearing before a final vote.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.