Is it time for South Carolina to pass a distracted driving law?

Distracted Driving in South Carolina

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - WMBF News has discovered that South Carolina is among the very last states in the country to pass some kind of law concerning cell phone while driving. It's a distraction police will tell you injures and kills more people than drunk driving.

Yet, despite the toll it's taking on our youngest drivers, South Carolinians are free to talk and text away behind the wheel, putting everyone around you in danger. So why does South Carolina love being last?

Let's start with what happens to the average driver when a text message comes in, or they send a message out. On average, their eyes leave the road for 4 seconds. At highway speeds, that's 100 yards that a driver never sees the road. And what's really scary is that 50 percent of all drivers say they do this every day.

It took no time at all to find the dangers on our local roads. WMBF News caught up to a cab driver with a passenger in the car who rarely looked up as he traveled more than two miles up Highway 17.

"It's too common," says State Senator Luke Rankin. "It's too casual, and there's no sense of danger in doing it."

Senator Rankin has been pushing a bit harder over the last few years to get a texting and driving ban on the books. So far his efforts in Columbia have failed.

"When I first started in politics as well as when I started my law practice, alcohol was the big impairment," Sen. Rankin said. "Now cell phone usage is as great or greater an incidence of injury or fatality, overtaking alcohol."

Rankin calls the lack of action on the part of lawmakers an embarrassment.

"I really think it is," he said. "We are slow to embrace things that other states recognize. Georgia, North Carolina both have laws on the books that speak to that."

South Carolina has a noteworthy history when it comes to being last with public safety legislation. Lawmakers here tend to consistently put more value on individual liberties than on common good. We were among the last to pass a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, require booster seats in cars for kids, seat belts for adults, and reduce alcohol limits for drunk drivers. As for cell phones and driving, we are just one state away from being the last there too.

State Representative, Nelson Hardwick will tell you most of these laws tend to pander to one group of drivers: "Yes, for idiots! How many laws do we pass to protect people from stupidity?" he said.

Hardwick supported the last texting law that came up for a vote in the house. It failed and convinced him it may not even be what his constituents want.

"I get more calls on trailer tags than I've ever gotten on texting in my district," says Hardwick, "if that tells you anything."

He's also not sure any such law is enforceable.

"We've got no tolerance for bullying, drinking, and everything else, and look at all the innocent people that get trapped with those laws: well-intended, but it's a life-changing experience," Hardwick said.

Myrtle Beach driver Fred Portway thinks any lawmaker not in favor of a cell phone driving law is just plain selfish.

"Twenty-two percent of all motor vehicle accidents are caused by idiots on a cell phone or texting," Portway said. "It is equivalent to driving drunk. The legislators, a lot of them know that."

Myrtle Beach Police Corporal Kevin Cast certainly knows that. He sees people injured and killed on the road every week. Most of them are on the phone, he said.

"It almost becomes like, you know, like an addiction," Cast said. As for enforcement, Cast says pass the law, and his officers will make it work.

"For the most part, you can pull up beside somebody and look right into their vehicle and you can see if they're on their phone," he said.

One of the drivers Cast pulled over for speeding one night was willing to admit that it was the phone that made him do it.

"I do know it's a distraction, and I think I try to fool myself into thinking that I'm better than that," said the driver. He went on to say he sends and receives text messages every time he gets behind the wheel.

It's not hard to find a family directly impacted by a driver distracted by a cell phone. Right in front of the Tanger Outlets on Highway 501, a truck driver slammed into the back of a car, killing a 4-year old girl and leaving a family wondering when the pain will end.

Miriam Bennett is a changed person. The loss of her daughter Jada has been crippling. Police say the driver of a semi was talking on the phone when he slammed into the back of their SUV.

"Why do they have to be driving and texting or getting on the phone?" asked Miriam Bennett. "Because it cannot just happen to me, it can happen to anybody."

Miriam is the mother of the four-year old girl, Jada, who was killed the crash. She is desperate for a cell phone law in South Carolina, and confused as to why we are among the last the adopt one.

"I thought that the United States was united. That's what it says in the pledge: United," Bennett said. "But South Carolina, why doesn't it have the same kind of law like any other state?"

Some lawmakers here believe this could be the year. In fact, Senator Rankin is hopeful such a law will pass during the second half of the current session.

There are no fewer than 10 bills ready for debate in the South Carolina House and Senate right now. Those bills that do everything from allowing homicide charges for killing someone on the road while using a cell phone, to making any distraction behind the wheel a primary offense.

If you look at laws across the country, you'll quickly see that not all texting and driving laws are the same. The fine in California if you're caught is just $20. However, text and drive in the state of Alaska and the maximum fine is $10,000 and up to a year in jail. Some states obviously take driving distractions more seriously than others. The proposed laws currently being looked at in South Carolina have fines ranging from $25 to $500.

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