It has been an eventful time in our state legislature lately, with two bills moving forward to improve safety on our roads and reform the Department of Transportation.
South Carolina is one of only eight states without any bans on drivers texting, though that may soon change. A new law to ban texting while driving is moving smoothly through the legislature currently without encountering any speed bumps. The bill was expected to face more opposition, but the only questions and concerns focused on enforcement. An amendment to the bill to ban texting or typing on the phone while stopped has also been included in the law.
Legislators compare the problem to drinking while driving, citing studies that show reading and typing texts can impair a driver even more than alcohol. Just like with drunk driving, stiff penalties are seen as the key to getting people to stop. Drivers caught texting could get a $100 fine, a $25 charge for the Trauma Care fund and two points on their license. Additionally, if injury results due to a driver texting, the fine would increase to $2,500 to $5,000 and mandatory prison time for 30 days to five years. If someone dies as the result of a distracted driver sending or receiving text messages it’s a felony charge and if convicted they could face a $5,000 to $10,000 fine and one to 10 years in prison.
The bill is supported by the South Carolina Teachers Association, the State Transport Police and the SC Children’s Trust. Police are already enforcing a federal ban on commercial drivers using electronics that aren’t hands-free, and cities across the state have already banned drivers from texting through local ordinances, including Clemson, West Union, Columbia, Camden and Sumter.
The Department of Transportation may soon be facing an overhaul. The House Judiciary Committee has given a favorable report to the bill that would eliminate the SCDOT Commission in favor of transferring control to the Secretary of Transportation. Currently, the Secretary manages day-to-day operations, while the seven-member Commission sets policy and approves projects. The plan would create a new 17-member advisory panel that would make recommendations to the Secretary on local road and bridge needs, but would not set policy.
Under the House bill, the legislature would also be more involved in DOT’s annual budget, requiring the Department to submit its annual funding plan each year and allowing approval of a much more detailed budget. This bill enjoys broad support, with 64 sponsors, though it does face opposition under the concern that it gives the governor too much power.