It’s been nearly five months since Mt. Pleasant Town Council passed a ban on texting while driving. Want to guess the total number of tickets written for violating that ordinance, according to the Mt. Pleasant Police Department?
The answer is zero.
In the City of Charleston, where a similar ban passed on Oct. 8, only one ticket has been written for a violation, according to police spokesman Charles Francis. The city’s distracted driving ban prohibits texting, e-mailing, or entering GPS addresses into a mobile communication device while operating any vehicle that is not parked.
How is it possible that two municipalities with a combined population of nearly 200,000 have written only one citation for the most common sin of our digital age?
“Well, maybe our residents are abiding by the law 100 percent,” Mt. Pleasant Town Councilman Ken Glasson says dryly. “What, you don’t have faith in the voting population and residents within the town of Mt. Pleasant? Come on.” Glasson opposed passing the ordinance last fall, saying the ordinance would be overly intrusive and too difficult to enforce.
Law enforcement officers in other states have reported difficulty in enforcing texting bans. In 2012, two years after Georgia passed a statewide prohibition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that fewer than 50 people per month had been convicted for the offense. In many cases, an officer must see the driver using a cell phone in order to establish reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop, and some drivers simply hide their phones in their laps. And once a texting-and-driving case gets to traffic court, officers may need to subpoena phone records or confiscate phones in order to prove a suspect’s guilt.
Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who voted in favor of the texting ban, offers a simple explanation for the lack of texting tickets. He says police aren’t enforcing the law yet because the city hasn’t posted signs about the ban yet.
“Don’t blame the police department,” Seekings says. “If anything, that’s the city being slow rolling out these signs. Fair is fair, and I think you’ve got to let people know about this.”
But Francis says the Charleston Police Department is “aggressively enforcing” the ordinance, signs or no signs. On the other hand, he says the department is not assigning officers to search specifically for texters on the road.
“If they’re out on patrol and they see a violation, they’ll enforce it,” Francis says. “Whether it’s hard to believe or not, I’m telling you, when they’re out on patrol, it’s just like any other ordinance.”
Charleston’s ban passed on Oct. 8, 2013, but the police department announced it would spend 30 days putting up signs and working on public education, followed by 30 days of issuing warnings to drivers. After those first 60 days, enforcement was scheduled to begin. Similarly, Mt. Pleasant’s ban passed on Sept. 10, 2013, but the town started with a 30-day education period, posting signs about the new ban around town and issuing warnings to drivers.
Mt. Pleasant Police Capt. Amy McCarthy says the town’s texting ordinance is being enforced the same way as Charleston’s: Officers look for violations while they are on patrol, but officers aren’t being assigned specifically to look for infractions. When asked how the police department could go four months without busting a single person for texting while driving, McCarthy credited the town’s education effort.
“After the law was passed, we educated through signage and media and so forth, giving people the opportunity to comply,” she says.
McCarthy says she knows of at least one traffic accident in which a driver admitted to texting while driving. But she says police charged the driver with reckless driving rather than slap the driver with a lesser $200 fine for texting that leads to an accident.
A statewide issue
All but three states have passed some form of texting-while-driving ban, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Texting is banned for all drivers in 41 states and the District of Columbia, and six other states have banned novice drivers from texting behind the wheel.
The three holdout states without a texting ban? Arizona, Montana, and South Carolina.
Scientific research is limited on the effects of texting while driving, but some recent studies have shown it to be a dangerous distraction. The U.K.-based Institute of Advanced Motorists released a study in 2012 that analyzed driver reaction times and found that texting and using a cell phone for social networking behind the wheel are more dangerous than driving while drunk or high on cannabis.
Some state lawmakers have proposed texting bans, including a pair of bills up for consideration in the current session. Senate Bill 880, penned by Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), would ban drivers with beginner’s permits and restricted licenses from using a cell phone while driving; the bill would also make it illegal to use a cell phone while driving through a school zone. In the House, Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-Charleston) and Rep. Don C. Bowen (R-Anderson) are pushing Bill 4386, which would make it illegal to “compose, send, or read an electronic message” on a mobile device while driving.
But as bills languish year after year in the Statehouse, local governments are taking matters into their own hands. Texting bans are now in effect in Camden, Clemson, Columbia, Sumter, Walhalla, and West Union. Last year, Mt. Pleasant passed a ban the day after Beaufort County passed theirs, and Charleston followed suit about a month later. Greenville passed a ban unanimously on Jan. 27, 2014, and officials in nearby Greer are now reportedly considering a similar ordinance.
UPDATE: The City Paper previously reported that the total number of distracted driving tickets written in Charleston was zero, based on records from the city municipal court. Charleston police are now saying the total is one. Read more about the raging controversy here.