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Bans on driver texting not easy to enforce

By Sara Coello, Post and Courier

As South Carolina legislators debate whether to strengthen the state’s lax textingwhile-driving laws, officers already struggle to hold motorists accountable for an infraction that can be hard to prosecute.

Area drivers are generally honest about when they’ve been texting, according to Charleston police Sgt. William Gritzuk, but if they don’t fess up, officers are responsible for proving they’d clearly seen illegal messaging, usually by providing body camera footage.

“We don’t make the law, we just enforce it,” Gritzuk said. “But it’s not easy.”

The Charleston Police Department has ordered and budgeted for two more motorcycles to join their street patrol fleet next year, Gritzuk said. Officers on motorcycles have an easier time getting a clear line of sight to drivers’ hands, he said.

None of the 16 fatal crashes Charleston officers have responded to in 2019 were texting-related, Gritzuk said, but about a quarter of crashes nationwide involve a driver who was messaging.

In Charleston, most of those crashes are rear-enders without major injuries. Drivers tend to pull out their phones when traffic jams during rush hour on the U.S. Highway 17 stretch known as the Crosstown, along with S.C. Highway 61 and Interstate 26, Gritzuk said.

A deadly crash could lead them to seek a warrant for phone records that could prove the driver opened a messaging app around the time of the accident, but police can’t inspect phones without a judge’s approval.

So far this year, city officers have not cited any drivers for “unlawful use of a wireless electronic communication device,” according to department records.

North Charleston police don’t track the role of texting in the crashes to which they respond, Assistant Police Chief David Cheatle said.

They also don’t track what infractions led officers to give verbal warnings, which is what the department expects in most cases where nobody is seriously injured. Only two drivers were cited for illegally texting by North Charleston officers in 2019.

Throughout the state, Highway Patrol officers had issued 2,500 texting tickets between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, 2019, Lance Cpl. Matthew Southern said. During special enforcement periods they patrol South Carolina highways in pairs, allowing one officer to keep their eyes on the road while the other concentrates on drivers. Even when they’ve witnessed texting, officers can’t force drivers to hand over their devices or show their phone histories to confirm their suspicions that illegal texting took place.

When vigilant officers catch drivers in the act and get proof of their infractions, the Palmetto State’s laws aren’t a significant deterrent. While drivers can’t use their hands to send or read any electronic messages, including texts and emails, when their vehicle is in motion on a public road, they can for phone calls, GPS navigation and dictated texts.

While Alaskans can spend a year in jail and $1,000 in fines for texting behind the wheel, South Carolina’s texters won’t pay more than $25 for a first offense, or $50 for a single incident involving multiple violations. In the 15 states where drivers are prohibited from even holding a phone, officers don’t bear the burden of proving whether they were texting a friend or adjusting their GPS. Only one state, Montana, has refrained from legislation that controls drivers’ ability to text.

More than 6,000 people had been convicted since the law took effect in 2014, authorities testified before a South Carolina Senate panel in October. “This is a public safety issue for the state,” Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said at the hearing. Young is sponsoring a bill that would increase fines to $100 for any driver caught with a phone in hand. Dictated texts and hands-free calls would still be legal, but even stopped drivers couldn’t change a playlist or adjust a navigation app.

Hilton Head Island’s Town Council voted unanimously in November to support the bill, and Kershaw County Sheriff Lee Boan spoke to senators on the panel as one of his deputies recovered from a cellphonerelated crash. The deputy had been directing traffic outside an elementary school when a woman, who allegedly admitted to looking at her phone, slammed into her at 40 mph. In 2017, the most recent year for which complete statewide data is available, the Department of Public Safety identified texting as the primary contributing factor in a collision that killed one person. It caused at least 60 collisions injuring 29 people, but could have contributed to several more in cases where officers couldn’t prove that a driver had been using their phone illegally, or that their distraction was what caused the crash.

And according to preliminary data, 380 South Carolina crashes involving cellphone use killed five people and injured 215 in 2018.

Texting drivers were responsible for 401 fatal crashes — about 9 percent of 2017’s 34,247 deadly collisions — throughout the U.S. that year, per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And according to a 2018 report from AAA, hands-on cellphone use increased chances of involvement in a crash by 83 percent, and fewer than a quarter of respondents said they approved of handheld cellphone use.

Even as states began outlawing the practice, 87.5 percent of surveyed U.S. residents reported much more concern over distracted driving in 2018 than in 2015, outpacing concern over aggressive and inebriated drivers. But 44.9 percent said they’d read an electronic message while driving over the past month, and 34.6 percent said they’d typed a message in that period.

Southern, who travels the Lowcountry to educate citizens about public safety, said many residents don’t understand just how distracting a text conversation can be.

The average text takes a sender’s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds, Southern said, about the time it takes to drive the length of a football field at South Carolina’s speed limits. Officials consider it a particularly dangerous distraction since it requires drivers to use their hands, eyes and concentration. “They’re receptive,” Southern said. “It’s mostly about education and enforcement.”