A bill signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley this week officially bans texting while driving; however, opponents of the law say it “lacks teeth” and is difficult to enforce.
The law makes it illegal to write, read or send a text or email message while operating a motor vehicle.
The original Senate version of the bill would have banned only novice drivers from using a cellphone at all while driving, but senators voted to approve the House's language. The House originally had a bill that banned texting while driving statewide.
Under the new law, drivers will still be allowed to write, send or read messages if they are legally stopped at a traffic light, stop sign or pulled over.
Drivers can still use their phones to make calls, as well as use GPS devices.
Texting will also be permitted to summon emergency assistance.
Violators face a fine between $25 and $50.
They cannot be arrested for violating the law unless they fail to show up for court or pay the fine.
Additionally, a violation has no bearing on the driver's insurance or license.
Members of the Aiken County Legislative Delegation have said they wanted to see stiffer penalties with the law.
Other opponents have said the law will be too difficult for law enforcement to enforce.
The ban supersedes nearly two-dozen City of Aiken and Aiken County ordinances on texting while driving.
For the first 180 days under the law, law enforcement will hand out only warnings to violators.
Lance Cpl. Judd Jones, a spokesman for the S.C. Highway Patrol, said an officer can pull over a motorist if the officer has a “clear, unobstructed view” of the person texting while driving.
“If that's the case, we see somebody's texting, we'll take the necessary actions against the person, a citation or whatever the case may be,” he said. “Before we stop them, we have to have probable cause. If we don't have that clear, unobstructed view, we won't make the charge. We'll only make the charge if we're 100 percent sure of what the person was doing at the time.”
The law forbids officers from seizing or confiscating a motorist's phone to see if they were texting.
“It's good to have (a law) on the books. It's going to be extremely difficult to enforce, considering what I have read,” said Steve Deibel, owner of Aiken Driving Academy and a former law enforcement officer.
“Somebody can say they were dialing a number or using a GPS,” he said, adding that his law enforcement colleagues around the state said it's not possible to enforce without pulling a driver's phone records.
Deibel added that with no harsh fines, no penalty points and no impact on a driver's insurance, the law “has no teeth.”
However, he said, the civil penalties may be felt more if a motorist is in a wreck and it is found out they were texting at the time of the accident.
Deibel said the answer to fixing texting while driving is to get people to change their habits.
“You have to make a conscious decision to stop doing what you do,” he said. “People are addicted to their phones.”
Aiken resident Sam Murer was aware of the new law and the dangers of texting while driving.
“You've got to pay attention to your surroundings, especially if you're driving downtown or in a crowded area,” he said. “Don't text and drive. Put your phone down, and wait until you get to that destination.”
©2014 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.)