A measure that would ban texting while driving was approved by the state Senate after supporters said South Dakota needs to join the 39 other states that prohibit the dangerous practice.
Senators voted 24-9 to approve the bill and send it to the House of Representatives, which has rejected similar bills in recent years.
The bill would prohibit typing, sending or reading a text message while driving, but it would continue to allow drivers to make cellphone calls and use hands-free electronic devices to handle text-based messages. It also would prevent cities from imposing any ordinance that varies from state law, a provision lawmakers said is needed to prevent a patchwork of bans across the state. Four South Dakota cities have imposed their own texting bans in the past year.
The measure’s main sponsor, Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said a texting ban might be difficult to enforce, but a statewide law would deter most people from texting while driving simply because it would be illegal.
Vehle said cultural changes reduced drunken driving and increased the use of seat belts after laws were passed to cover those issues.
“It’s time to change the culture in South Dakota. Texting and driving is not safe,” Vehle said.
Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, said he agrees that texting while driving is dangerous, but he opposes the bill because such activity is already banned by the state’s careless driving law.
“Why pass another law when we have an existing law that’s not being enforced as it should?” Omdahl said.
Vehle countered that law officers generally do not ticket people for careless driving until they see them do something dangerous on the road and that’s often too late to prevent an accident.
Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, said people who do not wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets put themselves in danger, but drivers who text threaten everyone else on the road.
“You make that decision to text and drive, you affect other people’s safety. Ergo, your rights have ended,” Rhoden said.
Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, tried unsuccessfully to change the bill so a ban would apply only in the state’s largest cities, arguing the ban is not needed in South Dakota’s rural areas. He noted there are only seven stop lights in his entire legislative district, which covers a huge area in northwestern South Dakota.
But the Senate rejected Maher’s suggestion after Vehle said the law needs to be the same everywhere in the state. Otherwise, travelers would not know where texting is banned, he said.