By Ellen Meder
Edited by Sam Barker
With South Carolina still on the verge of becoming the 31st state to ban texting while driving, it doesn't have to look far to see that the results might not be as expected.
North Carolina has had a ban since December 2009, and the law's sponsor, state Rep. Garland Pierce, already says it isn't fully effective. He wants to ban handheld devices entirely while driving.
"It's helped some, but it's been difficult to enforce," Pierce said. "Taking out these loopholes will keep the highways safer and make it easier for police to do their jobs."
In South Carolina, state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, sponsor of the bill now in the Senate, agrees that taking cell phones out of drivers' hands completely would be best. But in government he says, "you've got to crawl before you walk."
His bill, which has been kept from a vote by an objection from Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, would impose a $45 fine or an educational class on drivers convicted a first time, $50 and two points on the licenses of second-time offenders within five years and $75 and four points for third-time offenders.
Under North Carolina's law, as well as South Carolina's bill, officers can pull over drivers they see texting but still may not have grounds to write a ticket. If a driver says he or she was not texting and doesn't offer the phone as proof, the matter is dropped.
Without a time-consuming warrant or a confession, there is no way to prove someone wasn't simply placing a legal phone call.
Since North Carolina's law took effect, over 800 citations have been issued in a state with over 6.5 million drivers, State Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Gordon said. The Associated Press put the number above 1,200 after a January analysis of court records statewide.
But for every person convicted of the misdemeanor, others went free, even if caught red-handed.
Gordon said a trooper's trained eye can tell the difference between texting, which takes time and concentration, and quickly looking up a telephone number.
"If you ride beside someone, you can see them texting all the time, even driving with their elbows to use both thumbs," Gordon said. "But if they deny typing a text, there's not much to be done."
In fact, states with bans actually have a slightly increased rate of distracted driving accidents, according to a recent study by the Highway Loss Data Institute that examined insurance claims in four states with texting bans for more than two years.
Susan Hailey, a high school English teacher in Raleigh, N.C., said she sees teens trying to stop but that few really follow the letter of the law.
"I have some students who toss their phones in the back seat while driving to avoid temptation," Hailey said. "Some students say that they text at stoplights. ... Most kids admit that it is very dangerous. Despite the law, everyone is still texting."
It may be a difficult sell to South Carolina drivers, too.
Kyle Smith, 21, a fourth-year biology student at University of South Carolina, has been in seven accidents, most because he, or another driver, was texting. He said higher insurance rates kept his fingers off his phone for a while but that eventually he got comfortable "multitasking" again.
"It's not going to be hard to avoid getting caught, so the law really won't make a difference," Smith said.
That drivers realize how difficult the laws are to enforce may be a reason a ban can be more harmful than helpful. The Highway Loss Data Institute's report said accident rates might be higher where texting is banned because drivers still texting hold their phones lower, hiding them from police, but also diverting their eyes from the road longer.
But Knotts said he thinks a ban will bring attention to the hazards of texting while driving and that education for first-time offenders will bring South Carolinians to their senses.