H.4480: Distracted Driving bill

As we enter 2018, there’s new optimism at the state house that Distracted Driving will again be an issue we contend with in South Carolina.  House bill H.4480 has a chance this year, and it got its hearing yesterday in the joint subcommittee on Motor Vehicles and Transportation, which Rep. Jason Elliot of Greenville chairs.

Covered by two newspapers, bill sponsor Rep. Taylor made the bold and unconventional move of giving introductory testimony.  He said distracted driving is worse than driving while drinking, because you don’t have eyes on road.  And his assertion that “Driving is not a right, it is a privilege” is something the bike and walk community understands intimately, every day we navigate in shared space with cars.  H.4480 makes driving with a cell phone in hand a 2 point moving violation, only requires the police officer see the phone in hand, and cannot be used to conduct a vehicle search.  Stats he presented are that:

  • SC is the 1st worst in the nation in traffic fatalities per million vehicle miles traveled;
  • SC has the 3rd worst drivers in the nation;
  • The majority of accidents include distracted driving; 
  • When you text, you are 23 times more likely to be in an accident.  

Joe Lark spoke about the fatality of his family member Jeff Pierce.  Jeff was a strong bike rider, who achieved position #48 in the annual Assault on Mount Mitchell, when 13 professionals placed in front of him.  Regarding the tragedy, a witness said a cell phone was in the driver’s hand.  “[Cell phones] are a menace to bicyclists, walkers, or someone cutting their grass.”  

Renee Pierce, Jeff’s wife, spoke about the loss to her family and their community where Jeff served as a 5th grade teacher and biked regularly with his kids.  “Let’s also think about the runners, walkers, people getting the mail.  Let them finish their lives strong.”

Kelly Willenberg spoke about the recent fatality of her husband Dale Willenberg, and framed the issue as an “epidemic”.  He commuted almost daily on the road where he was hit, and the person who hit Dale had a cell phone in hand.  Kelly stated “I‘m standing here to tell you I’m not going away.  My goal is to help others to not go through the trauma.”

AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Tiffany Wright repeated that “distracted driving is more an issue than drunk driving”, and that the best start at prevention is abstaining from holding the phone.  She presented great research that shows “just because the light is green doesn’t mean your brain is green.”  Looking at a text at a red light, and then putting it down before proceeding, leaves the driver thinking about that same text for 27 more seconds.  For that reason, H.4480 includes prohibitions on cell phone use while stopped at intersections.  

The SC Trucking Association gave testimony with remarks from a cross country truck driver.  He stated the feds, years ago, restricted cell phone use to only blue tooth for all drivers with a CDL license, under any circumstance.  His company takes it further and also prohibits cellular use with blue tooth technology.

And finally, Paul LeFrancois of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition, on invite, testified that SC needs this bill for all road users, given our #1 status in traffic fatalities is unacceptable.  And last, we are compelled to act our way out of complacency, given that standing also places us a full 50-70 percent above the national average. 1015 people died on SC roadways in 2016, and imagine if we could prevent hundreds of those?  

The motorcycle lobby (ABATE) and SC Department of Public Safety are scheduled to testify at the subsequent hearing next week. 

Amy Johnson Ely

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