South Carolina has a new law to enforce, but local Georgia police say it can be difficult.
The Palmetto State became the 49th to outlaw texting while driving for all drivers on June 9. Georgia made it illegal in 2010. Montana is now the only state without a statewide ban.
“It’s just a very difficult thing for us to enforce, as you can imagine, especially when we’re not in unmarked cars,” said Georgia State Patrol Sgt. Chris Wright of texting.
While riding his motorcycle in his off-time, Wright frequently sees drivers texting behind the wheel, but when he pulls up to a vehicle in his bright blue police car, most phones go down, speeds decrease and unfastened seatbelts begin to click.
Drivers pulled over for suspected texting often claim to be dialing, which is not considered illegal.
Both states require police to have a “clear and unobstructed view” of a text-based act that includes text messages, e-mail and instant messaging before a citation is issued, but they are not allowed to view the phone to see if a text has been received or sent during the time period.
In some states, such as New York, where all cellphone use is prohibited, the law is easier to enforce, Wright said.
Aiken County sheriff’s Capt. Nick Gallam compared enforcement to writing a ticket for improper seatbelt usage, but even that is easier.
“We’ll do the best we can,” he said. “It’s a good thing. It’s a step in the right direction.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. At least 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit to having extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.
In five seconds, the average time to send or read a text, a vehicle traveling 55 mph covers the length of a football field, according to the NHTSA.
Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Calvin Chew said mostly the law is in place to make drivers more aware of the dangers.
“They might think twice before texting while driving now,” he said.
Richmond County sheriff’s Cpl. Chuck Benson recalls at least two fatalities in the past several years that stemmed from texting. In many cases, however, it’s difficult to tell for sure after the fact.
The Aiken County Coroner’s Office does not have information on whether texting was a factor in its traffic fatalities.
At least 19 South Carolina cities and two counties already had ordinances on texting, but Aiken County was not one of them.
Aiken Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jake Mahoney said officers will be focusing on driver education first. South Carolina police have been instructed to only write warnings for the first 180 days.
“Unfortunately, it will be a challenge,” Mahoney said. “This is new to our agency. We didn’t have a city ordinance so we have to develop our own tactics and techniques to enforce the law.”
Wright said after much discussion of the law he learned that it’s easier to write a ticket for a result of the texting instead of the act itself. Although he might not be able to prove in court the driver was texting, his dash cam could prove things like the driver crossing the line.
“That’s probably the best approach we have to it unfortunately,” he said.
Georgia’s law is not specific on when it is and isn’t lawful to text, only saying it’s unlawful “while driving.” According to Wright, the legislation isn’t specific on whether a driver is “driving” while stopped at a red light or stop sign.
South Carolina’s law exempts texting while parked, stopped at a stop sign or red light, using GPS functions, texting a request for emergency assistance or performing duties as a public safety official, according to the Associated Press. South Carolina’s fines are also the second cheapest in the nation at $25. Georgia’s is six times higher at $150. California has the cheapest at $20 and Alaska has the most expensive at $10,000 or a year in prison. Alaska also considers the act a felony, the Associated Press says.
“A distracted driver is just as bad as someone under the influence,” Wright said. “It may be worse.”