South Dakota lawmakers are taking a long look at distracted driving this legislative session, passing one bill restricting young drivers from using hand-held devices while rejecting another that would have barred all drivers from texting behind the wheel.
The teen-related bill, SB 106, is now awaiting a decision from the governor after a rocky path through the state Legislature. While the bill passed by 23-10 and 43-23 votes in the Senate and House, respectively, it saw fits and starts since being introduced in mid-January, having fallen short in a House vote last month before being reconsidered.
SB 106 bars under-18 motorists who have instructional or restricted permits, which are the licensing stages for the most inexperienced of the state’s drivers, from using any hand-held mobile devices behind the wheel.
Lawmakers Question, Promote Teen Driver Safety Issues
South Dakota has some of the loosest approaches to enforcing motorists’ use of electronic devices while behind the wheel. While SB 106 could mean restrictions for young drivers if Gov. Davis Daugaard inks it into law, the state is one of just 11 in the U.S. that still lack a statewide ban on texting for all motorists.
In December 2011, the state Legislature commissioned the Teen Safe Driving Task Force to discuss traffic safety issues for the age group and issue recommendations, one of which led to the formation of SB 106 to address the use of wireless communication devices that group members identified as “a significant distraction,” according to Sen. Craig Tieszen (R-Rapid City), the task force’s chairman.
Among other significant findings are that teen crash rates were equally high in both rural and urban areas, he said.
During the final House floor debate on SB 106, Rep. Peggy Gibson (R-Gibson) said her support for was meant to address a problem that could be made more immediate as the economy improves and more drivers hit the roadways.
“Teen death rates plummeted along with the economy because people drive less in economically poor times,” she said. “[Teen] driving is very price-sensitive.”
Rep. Tona Rozum (R-Mitchell) cited California laws restricting use of mobile devices, saying she supported the bill because those laws showed positive results in reducing traffic crashes.
In California, a UC Berkeley study compared the two years before and after a statewide driving ban on hand-held devices that went into effect in July 2008. The study showed that overall traffic fatalities dropped 22 percent while deaths of drivers where hand-held device use was a contributing factor dropped 47 percent.
“So I think when you look at that, and we know that the teens are by far and away the most vulnerable to be distracted, I think we really need to consider their safety,” she said about the study.
Rep. Mike Verchio (R-Hill City), who voted against SB 106, said he looked at statewide statistics from South Dakota’s Department of Public Safety showing no teen crash deaths between 2007 and 2012 in which cell phones were “a contributing factor.”
“This is not California, this is South Dakota,” he said, calling SB 106 a “feel-good bill that will not change a thing.”
“We do not need to regulate everything people do,” Verchio said.
Some of representatives’ debate on the bill had to do with whether it should be enforced as a primary or secondary offense, the latter of which means that police could only cite a motorist for the hand-held-related offense if it is in addition to another offense.
An officer can stop motorists for a primary offense if the officer suspects they are committing that offense alone.
While the state Senate first passed SB 106’s restriction as a primary offense in early February, House representatives amended it later that month as a secondary offense. Senators concurred with the amendment in the final 23-10 vote last week.
All-Driver Texting Ban Dies in Committee
South Dakota’s pursuit of a texting prohibition for all drivers fell short in the House Judiciary Committee, which voted to defer SB 142 by an 8-5 vote on Feb. 27.
Tieszen said the state’s task force on teen-related traffic safety found texting encouraged distraction at all levels for a motorist. Research has put the impact of texting on drivers’ reaction time on par with alcohol use.
“We have manual, visual and mental distraction,” Tieszen said about the task force’s findings. “In the case of texting … you have all three of those lined up against you.”
Arguments similar to those made against SB 106 were repeated against SB 142, with some lawmakers saying legislating against a bad habit was overextending the duty of government.
“There are other ways to influence our culture, to teach people that texting while driving is not socially accepted,” said Rep. Jon Hansen (R-Dell Rapids).
But the sponsor of SB 142, Sen. Mike Vehle (R-Mitchell), said legislation was exactly what was needed to urge a “culture shift.”
Public testimony delivered during that committee hearing all came from supporters of the bill, including South Dakota auto insurance providers.
Drew Duncan, an attorney representing South Dakota Insurance Alliance (SDIA), said that his state insurance trade group supported the bill because SDIA was behind a successful effort to ban texting-while-driving in Sioux Falls.
Duncan said the such prohibitions showed the ability to spark attitude adjustments among drivers.
“We think a ban, however you feel about it, will lead to changes in behavior,” he said.
Senators approved SB 142 in committee on Feb. 15 by a 5-2 vote and on Feb. 19 by a full floor 24-9 vote before the House Judiciary Committee deferred pushing the bill onto the House floor for debate.
Without a texting ban for all of South Dakota, drivers will still face prohibitions that pepper a few cities across the state, according to Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League (SDML), said.
City officials that SDML has talked to about texting bans for their individual cities have said, “we did it because the state won’t, but we think the state should,” Taylor said.
“We think this is going to continue to happen on a city-by-city basis,” she said about local texting prohibitions.