Effect of texting-while-driving bans limited to mostly warnings

01/08/09- Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette
01/08/09- Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette

New rules have made texting while driving illegal in nearly all of Beaufort County, but the new statutes haven't meant a glut of tickets.

Instead, law enforcement agencies around the county have mostly issued warnings in an attempt to educate drivers about the new rules.

Four municipalities and Beaufort County have passed texting-while-driving bans, from the city of Beaufort in September 2012 to the town of Port Royal in January. The bans cover nearly the entire county, with only the town of Yemassee lacking such a ban.

However, only the Beaufort Police Department has issued tickets since the city's ban was adopted -- and it has written only a few.

Since January 2013, just 11 citations and 36 warnings have been issued, Cpl. Hope Able said. Well over a year after the ban took effect in November 2012, a ticket isn't a certainty during a traffic stop. Able said it was left to the officer's discretion whether to issue a citation or a warning.

Across the county, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has issued 30 warnings since September, when the County Council approved a ban affecting unincorporated areas. The county ban was the third texting-while-driving ordinance to be approved locally, following Hilton Head Island's ban in May 2013.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the Sheriff's Office has moved past the warning mode to educate drivers, but it is still a deputy's discretion as to whether to issue a ticket or warning. Tanner said the effect of the bans is still visible on local roads.

"People are being more covert," he said. "It is not as blatant as it was before. People are taking a good bit more care when they drive. They are using their cellphone less while driving, and the new laws have been a huge deterrent."

In Bluffton and Port Royal, the two most recent towns to enact texting bans, educating drivers is still at the forefront.

Bluffton adopted the ban in November, and its police force is still issuing warnings, Lt. Joe Babkiewicz said Wednesday. He could not immediately say how many had been written, but Babkiewicz said officers soon will be writing tickets for the offense.

Port Royal police had an education window that expired in February after the town approved a texting ban in January, Deputy Chief Ron Wekenmann said. However, no citations or warnings had been issued by officers in the town, Wekenmann said.

When citations start to be issued, penalties throughout the county will be nearly uniform. Bans in Bluffton, Port Royal, unincorporated Beaufort County and on Hilton Head come with $100 fines for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for all subsequent offenses. Beaufort's penalties are lower, at $50 for the first offense and $150 for each subsequent one.

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Is texting while driving illegal in the Lowcountry? Depends on where you are, Oct. 26, 2013