In June 2014, South Carolina joined the majority of states in the country to ban texting and driving. This ban was initially welcomed as a positive as a sign that the legislature was addressing the rising problem of distracted driving. At the same time, many people believe that the law simply doesn’t go far enough to deter people from using their phones behind the wheel and causing serious car accidents. For that reason, there is a vocal lobby seeking to have the legislature adopt tougher legislation.
Here, we take a closer look at South Carolina’s texting and driving law, including the penalties that people face if they violate the law. We also discuss current legislative proposals to expand the law to cover more distracted driving activity and impose stiffer fines.
Is Texting and Driving Illegal in South Carolina?
South Carolina’s current ban on texting and driving is found at S.C. Code § 56-5-3890. The law prohibits drivers of all ages from using a “wireless communication device” to compose, send or read a text while operating a motor vehicle on a public street or highway within the state. However, the law does not apply if you are:
- Lawfully parked or stopped
- Using a hands-free device
- Trying to get emergency assistance
- Sending or receiving data through a digital dispatch system
- A public safety official in the performance of official duties
- Using a GPS system.
The law is considered to be a “primary” ban. In other words, a police officer can pull over a driver for violating the law. However, the officer must have probable cause that the driver is texting while driving based on a “clear and unobstructed view.” The officer cannot seize and search the phone based solely on an alleged violation of this statute. Once a stop is made, however, the usual standards apply for how an officer may expand the investigation.
The penalties for a violation of the law are fairly mild. It is not a criminal offense. Instead, a driver faces a $25 civil fine. Additionally, a violation puts no points on the driver’s record. As a result, a driver’s auto insurance rates cannot go up due to a violation.
What Types of Distracted Driving Laws Are Lawmakers Currently Proposing?
Many people find South Carolina’s current texting while driving ban to be problematic for several reasons. Common criticisms are:
- It is too difficult to enforce. With the seat belt law, an officer can see a driver and quickly determine whether he or she is wearing a seat belt. If the law banned all forms of electronic device use by drivers, it would be a similar situation. If the officer saw a driver holding a phone, the officer would have reason to stop the car. However, under the current law, an officer has to clearly see the person in the act of texting. This limits the actual use of the statute to make stops.
- The penalties are not severe enough. Statutes such as this are designed to deter behaviors like the act of texting while driving. However, a mere $25 fine without any consequences in terms of one’s driving record and auto insurance rates likely does little to stop people from texting when they are behind the wheel.
- It is too limited. While texting while driving has been shown to be dangerous, talking on a phone while driving or using a phone to do things like watch video or surf the Internet are not addressed in the statute. These behaviors can pose as much risk as texting, possibly more.
Because the of current law’s shortcomings, efforts in South Carolina continue to press for tougher legislation. For instance, in 2019, several legislators have pushed House Bill 3355, or the “Driving Under the Influence of an Electronic Device (DUI-E) Act.” The bill would amend S.C. Code § 56-5-3890 and make it illegal to use a hand-held electronic device for any reason, including talking or texting, unless it is for emergency reasons.
The bill would also slightly strengthen the penalties. While a violation still would not be a criminal offense, and no points would go on the driver’s record, the civil fine would increase from $25 to $200.
According to The State, 15 other states have enacted similar phone bans. In 13 of those states, traffic accident-related deaths dropped by at least 16 percent after the law took effect.
Lawmakers debated H.B. 3355 on the House floor in March. It currently sits in the House Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, many believe that the bill will not move forward, as has been the fate of other efforts to crack down on distracted driving in South Carolina in the past.
What Are Other Consequences for Texting and Driving in South Carolina?
On one hand, if you text while driving in South Carolina under current law, you will face no criminal penalties and only a $25 fine. On the other hand, you could still face serious consequences if you are distracted by a phone and cause an accident that results in the injury or death of another.
In South Carolina, if another person acts negligently and causes you to suffer an injury or the wrongful death of a loved one, you can hold that person accountable through a lawsuit. If a violation of South Carolina’s texting while driving ban causes an accident, then it could amount to negligence per se. In other words, the driver’s negligence is presumed as a matter of law. Even without a citation being issued, driving while distracted is a form of negligence that can be used as a basis for a lawsuit.
In a texting accident claim, you could be eligible to recover compensation such as past and future medical expenses, lost income, diminishment of future earning ability, pain, suffering and more. A wrongful death claim would seek different types of damages, including funeral and burial expenses and the loss of a loved one’s support and services.
Get Help from a Rock Hill Distracted Driving Accident Attorney
If you believe that a texting driver caused an accident that injured you or caused the loss of a family member in Rock Hill or a nearby community, you should seek help from the experienced attorneys of McKinney, Tucker & Lemel, LLC. We can conduct an immediate, thorough investigation of the crash and take aggressive action to pursue all compensation that you are due. To learn more, call or reach us online today and receive a free consultation.
Gary C. Lemel is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Wake Forest University School of Law who has deep background as a criminal defense attorney in Rock Hill. Over the course of his career, he has handled everything from traffic violations to death penalty litigation. His current practice spans multiple counties and focuses on cases involving driving under the influence, drug charges and high-level felonies. He also serves on the board of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and as a member of the South Carolina Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee and Public Defender Standards Committee.