Imagine driving the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the road.
That's what it's like to send a single text message while driving, researchers say.
Though outlawed in 19 states and the District of Columbia, text-messaging behind the wheel is currently legal in South Carolina.
But when the S.C. General Assembly convenes Tuesday, a trio of bills will be filed that aim to change that. It appears some type of ban has support from legislators generally opposed to government intervention, who say texting while driving is too dangerous to ignore.
"I am always very suspect of attempts by government to regulate private behavior," said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. "In this case, however, insurance industry research shows a fourfold greater risk of crashing when texting, about equal to someone with a .08 blood alcohol level. That is scary."
State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said he also is prepared to support a ban.
"What e-mail or text message is so important that you'd risk a life for it?" Herbkersman asked. "It's just not safe when you're driving a 6,000- or 8,000-pound vehicle."
A driver sending a text message is 23 times more likely to get in a crash than a non-distracted driver, according to a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study released in July.
Driver inattention is the primary cause of traffic crashes in South Carolina, said Sid Gaulden, state Department of Public Safety spokesman. He said his department does not track figures on traffic accident causes, but it favors any legislation that improves road safety.
The recent rise in text messaging has been led to an increasing number of states banning texting while driving.
Wireless users across the country sent more than 1.36 trillion text messages in 2009, up from 52 billion in 2005, according to statistics from Celluar Telephone Industry Association, the trade group representing the cellular phone industry
In February 2008, only two states, Washington and New Jersey, had banned texting and checking e-mails while driving. At the beginning of 2010, that total had risen to 19 when new laws went into effect in Illinois, Oregon and New Hampshire.
The bills have been supported by cell phone companies, which say the laws are an important step in improving road safety.
"No one opposes the legislation," said John Taylor, spokesman for Sprint. "It's something that you'd think people would have enough common sense not to do and you shouldn't have to pass a law."
Randy Moultrie, a Ridgeland resident filling up at a Beaufort gas station Thursday, said the cell phone companies' support of proposed legislation proves its merit.
"These are the companies that are selling you the phones and text-messaging plans and they're telling you not to use them while driving?" Moutrie said. "That's proof right there that people probably shouldn't be doing it."According to a Nationwide Insurance/Harris Interactive poll, 8 in 10 people support a ban on texting and e-mailing while driving.
Locally, drivers at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort are banned from using their phones while driving on base, and Beaufort County implemented a policy last month mandating the use of hands-free devices with cell phones in its 582 county-owned cars and trucks.
"It's just common sense," said county administrator Gary Kubic. "If you want to text or make a phone call when you're driving, do it in a proper fashion and pull over. Hands on the wheel, eyes forward when you're driving is a good practice."
QUESTION OF ENFORCEMENT
While all three bills seek to deter drivers from texting, they differ on penalties.
A bill proposed by Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, would make texting while driving a secondary traffic violation and subject violators to a $25 fine.
A bill filed by Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson, would make it a primary violation and carry up to a 60-day jail term on a first offense, a fine up to $2,500 and a one-year suspension of a driver's license.
The third bill, filed by Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, would make it a primary violation and levy a $250 fine on a first offense, with a one-month suspension of a driver's license.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said that while he supports "anything that would help the cause of driver inattention," he questions how his deputies would enforce such a law.
"We can make our case, subpoena phone records and show that you were on your phone," Tanner said, "but if you cause an accident, how can we prove that you were on your cell phone at the exact moment that accident occurred?"
North Carolina outlawed texting while driving Dec. 1, and 38 drivers have been cited, said Sgt. Jeff Gordon, spokesman for the N.C. Highway Patrol.
In North Carolina and 15 other states, texting while driving, like speeding, is a primary traffic violation.
Tanner said making texting a primary traffic violation is the only way the law could work in South Carolina. Such a violation would make enforcement easier, Tanner said, because officers could pull drivers over for that specific reason.
THE DANGER FACTOR
Sen. Davis said that while he supports the principle of the legislation, he doesn't know which one will ultimately appeal to legislators.
"I am not sure which of the three bills will get traction and become the legislative vehicle, and I don't have a sense yet for whether the will of the legislature is to make this a priority or not," Davis said. "A ban would be very difficult for officers to enforce, but would undoubtedly have a deterrent effect on many."
A self-professed texting addict and initially skeptical of texting bans, Lady's Island resident Brandon Jackson said legislators should realize the danger of allowing texting on the road.
"My first thought is, 'Oh, great, another thing I can get pulled over for,' but this is something different," Jackson said, pausing briefly to read an incoming text from his girlfriend. "When you don't wear a seatbelt, you only endanger yourself. But if you're texting and swerving all over the place, you're endangering me and mine. We can't have that."