Police wasted no time in getting the word out following Town Council’s passage of a ban on texting while driving, making Mount Pleasant the first Charleston-area town to take such action.
At the police department’s request, Wando High School, with approximately 3,700 students, was transmitting the message on its message boards Wednesday, according to Police Chief Carl Ritchie. Plans to spread the message on social media are also underway.
But officers aren’t writing tickets just yet. At first, police are expected to issue warnings to drivers violating the ban.
“In the next month or two, we want to give people a feel that texting is banned in Mount Pleasant,” said Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who spearheaded the ordinance.
Ritchie said the warnings will serve to remind people that the goal is to improve safety on the roads. “I want people to understand it’s about not texting, not about revenue,” he said. Ritchie didn’t specify exactly when warnings will turn into citations. But once they do, the fines are hefty.
Drivers who violate the ordinance will be hit with a $50 fine, as long as the violation didn’t happen during a traffic accident. But with the addition of state-required court fees, the fine totals $158.70, according to town officials. Texting drivers who get in a wreck face a $200 fine, a penalty that rises to $470 with the added court fees.
“So, it’s just not worth it,” Ritchie said.
For the moment, Mount Pleasant stands alone in the tri-county area in banning texting behind the wheel, though Charleston is mulling a similar law.
Mount Pleasant’s law, which passed on a 6-3 vote Tuesday night, applies to viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games and viewing or retrieving email and other electronic data.
The effort to pass the ordinance began a few years ago, but when council considered the issue, “we didn’t have the votes to pass it,” Stokes-Marshall said.
Council members waited to see if the state would pass its own ban, and when it didn’t, they revisited the issue. The ordinance received initial approval last month on the same vote margin, with council members Ken Glasson, Linda Page and Chris Nickels opposing the measure.
Critics argue the measure will be nearly impossible to enforce. Proponents, however, counter that traffic safety concerns make the new law a necessity.
Some 379 distracted-driving collisions occurred in Mount Pleasant through June, officials have said.
Glasson said he considers the ban to be an ineffective and intrusive law that will create a bottleneck of cases in court, much as a similar measure did in the town of Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t think we solved anything with this,” he said.
Glasson cited a Post and Courier article that described how nearly one-third of the 140 citations written in Columbus after a May 2010 texting ban went into effect were dismissed, in part because the prosecutions became too cumbersome.
“I think we’ve overstepped our bounds as a municipality,” Glasson said. “I guess it sends a message out. But I don’t think it’s our job to dictate to the public, stick our hands into their individual liberties and tell them how to live their lives.”
But Mayor Billy Swails said the town isn’t looking to inundate its courts with violators. He said he believes the law itself will deter people from texting while driving. “Most people abide by the law and rules and regulations,” he said.
Ritchie agreed and said the potential difficulty in proving the texting would not be a hurdle for them “because it has to be an obvious violation for them to be cited.”
“That’s the instruction I’m giving my officers,” he said. “If there’s any gray, I don’t want my officers to make the charge.”
Under the approved ordinance, law enforcement cannot stop a person unless an officer has probable cause to believe that texting while driving is occurring based on a clear and unobstructed view.
If a driver is stopped on a suspected texting violation, the cellphone or other texting device will not be seized. An officer can, however, seek a court subpoena for phone records of the device to determine if the driver had been texting.
An officer may not search or request to search a motor vehicle simply because of an observed violation of the anti-texting law. And police are not allowed to arrest the offending driver for texting alone.
Other cities on board
South Carolina is among a few states that still allow texting while driving. Texting behind the wheel is barred in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
Distracted or inattentive driving this year has played a role in 23 fatal collisions, according to S.C. Department of Public Safety data. There also have been 1,836 collisions that involved injury, 4,621 collisions that involved property damage and 6,480 total collisions.
Several attempts in the General Assembly to pass a statewide ban on texting while driving have failed. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, has filed bills for two years in a row banning texting and talking on the phone while driving. The first bill died in a legislative committee, he said. The most recent bill is expected to come up for discussion next year.
Since the state hasn’t moved on the law, several local jurisdictions took it upon themselves to act. Nearly a dozen municipalities, including Beaufort, Columbia, Sumter and Clemson, have passed their own texting-while-driving bans.
On Sept. 24, the city of Charleston is expected to consider an ordinance prohibiting the use of hand-held devices behind the wheel for any form of texting, the reading of texts, e-mailing or typing. If passed, the Charleston fine would be set at $100, plus court costs.
Charleston County Council member Joe Qualey has twice failed to get his panel to discuss a countywide ban on texting while driving. He doesn’t hold much hope that Mount Pleasant’s vote will spur similar action on County Council.
“I would hope so, but realistically I don’t think so because I’ve gotten zero support on all of my efforts,” he said, “and I don’t see that changing.”
Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin said he would support a countywide ordinance. But logistically, Folly Beach is too small a municipality to enforce a town ban, he said.
Gilliard hopes municipalities’ actions to file their own bans give momentum to the passage of a state law. “I’m glad to see the cities are on board,” he said. “It shows us they’re on board with the effort and that helps on the state level.”