MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It took years of debate and compromise, but as of January 1, South Carolina will begin enforcing the state's first-ever texting and driving law. While the new law makes texting behind the wheel illegal, many feel it offers too little in the way of penalties to force drivers to put down their cell phones. However, when it comes to the cost of breaking this law, getting pulled over by the police is the last thing you should be worried about.
From buckling up, to driving 55, to what defines drunk, South Carolina has never followed the nation's lead. It has taken threats from the federal government to force change in most cases. But when it comes to texting and driving, something you probably witness every day on local roads, a different approach finally appears to have gotten the job done. Cities across the state got the legislature's attention after passing a patchwork of texting laws.
Sick and tired of waiting for the state to take action, more than a dozen communities took action of their own, passing their own texting and driving ordinances. In Mount Pleasant, the fine for a ticket, including court costs, is upwards of $200 - hundreds more if you're involved in an accident.
”It was really just to get our young people just tuned in,” says Mt. Pleasant City Councilman Elton Carrier, “to get parents of young people tuned in that hey, there's a law here now.”
However, now that the state has passed its law, Mt. Pleasant and every other community that passed independent laws have repealed them. And most are not shy about their criticism of the state's version.
“We accomplished what we intended to do by getting the legislature to pass it,” Carrier says. “Yes, it's a weak bill; maybe they'll come back and strengthen it. For right now I think we got all that we're gonna get.”
As a punishment for breaking the law, the legislature's version is weak: a $25 fine, with no notification to the DMV, SLED or your insurance. And the officer cannot so much as look at your phone to prove you were texting.
Click here to view the full text of the state's law: http://www.wmbfnews.com/story/27470888/full-text-south-carolinas-texting-while-driving-law
Whether it's the state law or your local ordinance, Mt. Pleasant's police chief admits it's tough to enforce.
“Enforcement is difficult,” Chief Carl Richie says. “There's no question about it. But I think the spirit of first of all our town ordinance, and the state law was to get driver attention and let them know that it's not okay.”
What's not okay is the state law, according to solicitors like Horry County's Jimmy Richardson.
“To not allow the police officer to look at the phone for a short period of time and say yes, there's the text, I don't know how you can really make a case,” Richardson says. “So, that bothers me a lot more than the small fine.”
Senator Luke Rankin sponsored no fewer than three texting/driving bills over the years, including the one that finally passed.
“I'm sorry that it took so long, but we now have a law, and I'm proud that we do,” Rankin says. “It is a stepping stone and we will be more aggressive now having come to this point.”
But it is too late for drivers like Terrance Johnson. Two years ago, while most states were years into their texting bans, his van was struck by a texting driver along Highway 501, severing his spine.
”I remember going down into a ravine,” Johnson says. “And after that I remember being transported to the hospital for injuries.”
Johnson lost a lot in that accident, including his job. He says he could have lost his 4-year old son.
“Usually he'd be in the back on the computer in the car and that's where I had the impact,” Johnson explains. “So, if he was there, he probably wouldn't be here today.”
Johnson sued the texting driver, and after a long court battle, he won. This is where the state's new law will have its biggest impact.
When the state legislature finally came up with a palatable texting law, they may have thought this through more than you think. Their intent was never to level some massive penalty on you. That will come in local courtrooms. You see, the second that texting and driving law went into effect, the decision to send a text message behind the wheel increased your civil liabilities, and could now cost you everything.
“Someone now who is involved in an accident while texting, they have that small fine to pay,” says Horry County Chief Deputy, Paul Butler. “But absolutely, it's the civil liability that accompanies that. “
“The mindset of everybody in the jury box will be, yes, he was doing an illegal act and created a wreck,” Jimmy Richardson suggests. “And it wasn't just like he was distracted. Now there's that added fact that he was doing something that was socially unacceptable.”
This means you can expect massive punitive damages to come out of many of these cases. The $25 fine was never the incentive to stop. The question is now, can your family afford to face a jury when you're the cause of a texting and driving accident?
“What we're looking to do instead of drastically reduce the behavior, is to slowly change the attitude,” says Butler.
The effort to educate our next generation of drivers will have to continue for the law to have an impact.
For towns like Mt. Pleasant and the dozen other communities that chose to strike sooner, they're ahead of the game when it comes to sending that message.
“I think people are starting to take a harder look and recognize not just the cost of the fine but the cost of the collision or if you harm somebody or kill somebody what it can truly cost you now that this law's in place,” Chief Richie says.
Last year more than 3,000 people were killed in texting-driving accidents, another 400,000 were injured. That's with texting bans in all but two states. Here's the good news. The states that had bans in place saw an 11-percent reduction in fatal accidents among drivers between 16 and 21.