Texting Tickets: Is SC law strict enough?

Live 5 Investigates: Texting Tickets
Published: May. 5, 2017 at 10:00 PM EDT|Updated: May. 5, 2017 at 11:29 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The average text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

They say if you're driving 55 miles per hour, that means you could go the length of a football field without ever actually looking at the road in front of you.

Texting and driving can be dangerous and deadly. Yet, it seems to be a common site on any commute.

It only took a few minutes of driving in the Lowcountry to catch people texting and typing on their phones. One woman even took both hands off her wheel repeatedly along a mile long stretch as she typed on her phone, head down while her car was swerving.

"Your car is a weapon if not used correctly and treated with real seriousness," Macon Rudisill said.

As the owner of 911 Driving School in Mt. Pleasant, Rudisill is determined to hammer home a message about the dangers of distracted driving to the students they work with every day.

911 Driving School uses actual officers as instructors. Elijah Simpson is one of them.

He and Rudisill went for a ride with us on Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant.

Within minutes, we found people paying more attention to their phones than the road.

South Carolina's texting and driving law was passed in June 2014. Officers could only give warnings for the first 180 days.

Since then, Highway Patrol has issued 1,939 texting and driving tickets statewide.

Charleston County courts has handled 55 texting and driving tickets since the law was passed. Georgetown County handled 42.  Colleton County handed about 27.

We're still waiting to hear back from Dorchester and Williamsburg  Counties, and Berkeley County Court officials told us they can't pull this sort of number out of their computer system.

Local courts we checked with told us almost all cases were paid and not dismissed.

Simpson isn't surprised tickets numbers seem low. "It's not enforced as much as it should be," he said.

He believes that's partly because drivers are often pulled over for things like swerving or improper lane change, but actually proving it was because of texting can be hard.

"Let's say a person comes in and says, 'I wasn't texting and driving.' Now yes, can an officer subpoena records and all that? Yes, we could. But are they going to for a fine that's just $25?" Simpson said.

The current fine for texting and driving is $25 and no points on your license. A second offense is $50.

Over the past five years, the number of people injured in all distracted driving crashes has steadily increased in South Carolina.

When we checked collision statistics where cell phones or texting were specifically listed as a contributing factor, fatalities are about the same as they were five years ago.

Injuries and crashes were on the decline in that category. That may indicate the state law is helping. However, Simpson believes texting and driving is still big problem that goes under-reported.

Texting when stopped at a red light is legal in South Carolina, but as soon as your car moves, you're supposed to stop.

"We've got a duty to pay attention when we drive," said Charleston Attorney Bill Green.

Green said other states have much tougher laws for these violations. In California, you now can't hold your phone at all while driving.

"I do think South Carolina laws should be stricter. I think the laws should reflect it's a dangerous situation," Green said. "People think it's rather innocent, but it's not."

House Bill 3526 is proposed in the South Carolina legislature right now and would make a $500 fine possible for driving and using a cell phone or any device that's not hands-free. The bill is still in committee.

Steve Catalano's car was crushed in a four-car pile-up on the Isle of Palms Connector last year. He said the woman who caused the crash admitted she was looking at her phone.

"The girl made the statement, 'The minute I looked up, the car was just there and boom!' The car behind me got scrunched up like an accordion," Catalano said.

As a real estate agent, Catalano loves to see more people moving to the Charleston area. But he worries our "stop and go" traffic makes it tempting to grab your phone and multi-task.

"You're in the Lowcountry! Slow down," Catalano said.

At 911 driving school, teenager Kayla Tyler is excited to take her third driving test so she can get her learner's permit.

She and her mom, Crystal, think stricter laws would help stop texting and driving.

"I think it's really evident when someone is on their phone. You see them swerve, or brake too fast. It really causes trouble," Crystal said.

Catalano said, "I'm not all about pushing laws and that sort of stuff. I think it's a personal responsibility thing."

A responsibility they believe all drivers should take more seriously.

Officer Simpson said, "Texting and driving kills. Do you want to explain to someone's family you killed someone? Or the person you killed could be your family member. Hard to live with that. Hard to live with that."

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