NEWBERRY — Put down those cell phones Newberry and keep your hands on the wheel. Gov. Nikki Haley’s signature outlawing texting while driving on Monday evening made South Carolina the 49th state to ban the action.
Montana is now the only state without a statewide ban.
Rep. Walt McLeod and other representatives had introduced a bill to the House of Representatives but it did not pass.
“Our motivation was that we were only one of three that did not have the general law,” McLeod said.
McLeod said most of what they had incorporated into their bill was used in the one that was passed this week.
Effective on June 9, S.459 states that the penalty for violating the law is similar to that of driving without a seatbelt. There will be a $25, not to exceed $50 for the first offense, but McLeod said it is unclear as to what additional offenses would mean.
There will be no custodial arrests for a violation of the law. McLeod said the bill also states that no cell phone can be seized as a result for a traffic ticket, nor can officers search a person or vehicle.
The officer must observe the offense of texting while driving with a clean and unobstructed view. The law does not apply to a person using a hands-free or wireless electronic device, GPS, or other navigation system.
McLeod said the law does not apply to a person who is lawfully parked or stopped, nor does it apply to someone summoning emergency assistance or to a public safety official while performing their duties.
Newberry Police Chief Jackie Swindler believes the new law will benefit the citizens of Newberry. Swindler said he feels the law was necessary and needed, as research shows that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving while under the influence.
“Almost every day you see someone distracted by reading or sending a text,” Swindler said. “That makes the potential for danger than much greater.”
Within the past few months, Newberry County has personally taken the initiative to the local level by attempting to outlaw texting and driving within the cities throughout the county. Some had reached second reading before the law was signed.
While those were good advances, Sheriff Lee Foster said they can sometimes cause confusion for non-local guests. For example, a person driving from Columbia may not know about each city’s ordinances.
“Do we charge them?” Foster said.
Local ordinances are not often participated by state police, Foster said, which meant the South Carolina Highway Patrol may not have taken part in those. Foster said he was glad Haley signed the law, making it uniform throughout the state.
Local law enforcement, Foster said, received a copy of the bill Wednesday afternoon, which states for the next 180 days, they can only write warning tickets for the offense.
Foster said for those ticketed for the offense after those 180 days, it will not go against their insurance, similar to that of a traffic ticket.
Confirming with McLeod, Foster said that officers are not allowed to seize a person’s cell phone, even if they have suspicion that they were texting while driving. To take the phone, Foster said there must be another violation, such as an accident to where a bodily injury has occurred. The officer must have an outstanding warrant to search the person’s vehicle or phone.
“It looks like they tried to cover every base to protect citizens’ civil rights to make sure law enforcement didn’t go overboard,” Foster said.
Derek Underwood, Mayor of Prosperity said although Prosperity had plans for an ordinance to outlaw within the city limits, he was pleased that the law is now statewide.
“Texting and driving has proven to be a deadly combination,” Underwood said. “I believe that much like speed limits, if a law is enacted, we law-abiding citizens will think twice before texting while driving.”
Prosperity had also previously passed that the employee handbook would have a section prohibiting texting while driving.
Citizens from Newberry County were asked to share their opinions on the texting while driving bill.
“Life is so great and you only get one crack at it,” said Carrie Sexton. “Why jeopardize life with texting while driving?”
Edwina Wicker from Prosperity shared a story of seeing a mother who posted a video to Facebook of herself driving, while videoing her children in the car.
“She was endangering her own children, herself, other drivers and also setting a very poor example by being irresponsible behind the wheel,” Wicker said.
Although most are for the newly proposed law, some citizens worried that it will be hard to enforce. Others worry it may cause even more of a distraction.
“I heard that accidents increased when such laws are passed because people still do it but they hide it and become even more distracted,” Stephanie Sutton shared.
Research performed by distraction.gov said that at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010.
Mayor Foster Senn thanked citizen Lou Neiger for raising this issue not only in the community but also at the Statehouse level. Neiger, Newberry resident, visited local municipalities consistently as well as kept tabs with the proposed bills at the Statehouse to have action taken. Neiger’s son was killed in a car accident last year.
Though his campaign involved banning texting while driving, an investigation into his son’s accident determined his son was not texting or on his phone at the time of his accident.
“I’m very glad it passed,” said Senn. “Texting while driving can be tempting, especially for teenagers and other young people. With it now being against the law, I think most people will quit doing it.”