Put teeth in texting ban to help make South Carolina roads safer


Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Post and Courier on Thursday.

Taking cellphones out of the hands of South Carolina drivers might be almost as hard as taking their guns. You might have to pry them from their cold, dead hands, to paraphrase the old National Rifle Association slogan. But that's just what Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, aims to do when the Legislature reconvenes next month.

Though Rep. Taylor's proposed handheld ban is unlikely to find enough statewide support for passage, another element of his bill - raising the $25 fine for texting while driving to at least $100 - ought to make its way to the governor's desk at the speed of sound.

Part of the problem with South Carolina's current law is that it's hard to enforce. Police have a hard time telling whether a driver is illegally texting or allowably just dialing or using a phone's navigation system. And the $25 fine is hardly worth the administrative cost of collecting it. Only about three citations per day statewide are issued for texting while driving, and some local law enforcement agencies have practically given up on enforcing the ban.

Not one citation was issued in North Charleston in the first two years of the texting ban, and just two were issued this past year. In Charleston, a total of 19 tickets have been issued. Mount Pleasant, however, has handed out about 117 over the past three years.

Increasing the fine to $100 would give the texting ban more teeth in that it would take a bigger bite out of a scofflaw's wallet. Quadrupling the current fine could also inspire stricter enforcement. Police need only to start writing the tickets. Drivers who want to contest them can argue their case in traffic court.

Increasing the fine, incidentally, would bring South Carolina's law more in line with its neighbors. The fine in North Carolina is $100. In Georgia, it's $150 plus 1 point on your driver's license.

Under Rep. Taylor's bill, the fine for repeat offenders would go to $300 and include 2 points on the offender's driver's license.

"Legislation like this is always a conversation starter," Mr. Taylor told the Aiken Standard. "We need to have a serious conversation with our citizens."

Indeed. South Carolina traffic fatalities have dropped slightly since peaking at 1,016 in 2016, but collisions attributed to distracted driving have been climbing steadily, from 4,399 in 2011 to 5,698 in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And that's driving up insurance rates, which jumped nearly 9 percent statewide in 2016 alone.

A 2014 study by the National Safety Council concluded that drivers distracted by mobile phones caused 26 percent of all U.S. accidents.

Rep. Taylor is on the right track. And he's right that banning handheld phones behind the wheel would make it easier for law enforcement officers to cite motorists. But a similar ban faced strong opposition in the Legislature. Better to try a stronger texting ban first, recognizing that texting is a more demonstrable danger to safe driving.