A statewide ban on texting while driving, which awaits the governor's signature, would supersede stricter local bans and lower fines for offenders, according to local officials.
Any citations previously issued by Beaufort County law enforcement would stand under the bill, passed Wednesday by the General Assembly, according to 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone. However, few such tickets have been issued.
Beaufort police have written 10 citations and 43 warnings since the city's ban took effect in November 2012, according to Cpl. Hope Able.
Representatives of the Port Royal and Bluffton police departments say their officers have not issued any citations.
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Neither have deputies with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, though they have written 36 warnings since April on Hilton Head Island and in unincorporated areas of the county since those bans took effect in July and September of 2013, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh.
Should Gov. Nikki Haley sign the bill, drivers would have another grace period of six months before the statewide ban takes effect. The law, which carries a $25 penalty, does not allow drivers to compose or read electronic messages while their vehicle is moving. However, it allows drivers to send messages while stopped at a red light or stop sign or pulled off on the side of the road, which local ordinances prohibit.
Beaufort's ordinance also banned those under 18 years old from using a phone while driving.
Once Haley signs the bill, "the local ordinances will basically cease to exist," Stone said.
That prospect was frustrating to several law enforcement officers, who said the local bans were tougher on the dangerous practice.
"The (state) law doesn't have a lot of teeth to it," Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
Local governments settled on much higher fines for a reason, he said. The city of Beaufort's ban features the lowest penalty, of $50 for a first offense, although the penalty for subsequent violations can go as high as $150. Fines in Bluffton, Port Royal, Beaufort, unincorporated Beaufort County and on Hilton Head Island start at $100 or $150 and run up to $300.
That doesn't necessarily mean the law will be ignored, however.
The state law requiring occupants to wear seat belts also carries a penalty of $25, yet it has been relatively effective, Tanner and Maj. Ron Wekenmann of the Port Royal Police Department noted.
In Beaufort and Jasper counties, the S.C. Highway Patrol issued 5,520 tickets for seatbelt violations in 2013, up from 4,575 in 2012 and only 569 in 2005, the year the law first allowed ticketing of drivers who committed no other offense.
However, a penalty of at least $100 would do a better job of convincing drivers to leave their phones in their consoles, they said.
"It's not about revenue; it's all about safety," Wekenmann said. "I do think a $100 fine is a much larger deterrent than $25."
The state bill is also too lenient because it allows drivers to send texts while stopped at intersections, Tanner said.
"When I read that, I just couldn't believe they thought it was OK," he said. "Technically, you're still driving the car. It may not be moving ... but we need you to pay attention."
Local agencies said they would accept and adapt to the state law, which was aimed at simplifying rules for drivers. But some aren't sure that will be the case.
"I think maybe we're making it too complicated," Wekenmann said.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.