- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota House Speaker Brian Gosch on Wednesday proposed a statewide ban on texting while driving, but critics said his surprise move would replace much stronger bans already imposed by some cities.

Gosch initially introduced a bill that sought to prevent local governments from passing their own distracted driving ordinances, including texting bans. But at the measure’s first hearing Wednesday, in a room filled with local officials upset with the prospect of losing control of their streets, Gosch changed the bill’s language to ban texting while driving statewide.

Local governments still would be barred from passing their own distracted driving ordinances under the new version, though - something Gosch said existing law already prevents them from doing.

Gosch, who has voted against texting bans in previous years, said studies have failed to show that texting bans have reduced traffic accidents and deaths in the 41 states that have such bans. He said a texting ban could work in improving highway safety only if coupled with an aggressive state advertising campaign that urges drivers not to text or engage in other actions that would distract them behind the wheel.

“We want a bill that can reduce accidents in South Dakota, and we think this bill can do that,” the Rapid City Republican said.

The Judiciary Committee delayed a vote on the measure until Monday to give people a chance to study the new version.

Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said he opposes Gosch’s proposal because it would set a “very low standard” compared with the texting bans now in place in some cities.

“If this bill passes, we’ll give them a ban, but it will be less of a ban than they have now. It will water it down quite a bit,” Allender told the committee.

Gosch’s bill would make it a petty offense, carrying a $25 fine, to drive while using a hand-held device to write, send or read text-based messages. However, drivers could still use cellphones to talk and could text with devices using voice-operated or hands-free technology. Law enforcement officers could issue tickets for texting while driving only after they had first stopped drivers for some other traffic violation.

The measure also would provide that only the Legislature can regulate distracted driving and cellphone use in vehicles.

Gosch said state law since 1929 has prevented local governments from passing measures that differ from the state’s rules of the road. That means texting bans passed by Huron, Brookings, Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Aberdeen and Pennington County likely would be struck down if challenged in court, he said.

Allender said he and other local government officials believe cities and counties have the authority to pass traffic measures that differ from state law.

Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said city officials believe such local ordinances are legal. She said local texting bans should be allowed to stand if the state doesn’t pass an equally strong ban. However, she said she needs to check with city officials to get their reaction to Gosch’s changed bill.

Gosch said discussion of a texting ban is difficult because supporters and opponents are emotional in their beliefs.

“As you discuss this issue with people who are so passionate about it, they are not objective. They are not sane half the time. You can’t have an intellectual conversation with them,” Gosch said.

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association recommends that all states ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, but an association study also found there is no evidence that bans on cellphones or texting have reduced crashes.

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