- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A statewide ban on texting while driving was endorsed Wednesday by a South Dakota Senate committee as part of a continuing battle between supporters of two competing measures.

The State Affairs Committee voted 5-4 to approve a measure, passed earlier by the House, which would make it a petty offense carrying a $25 fine to text behind the wheel. Law enforcement officers could issue tickets for texting while driving only after stopping drivers for some other traffic offense, and local government could not have texting bans that differ from state law.

Some who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing said they prefer a Senate-passed bill, scheduled for a hearing Thursday in a House committee, which would impose a $100 fine and allow cities and counties to continue passing and enforcing bans that differ from state law.

The committee chairman, Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, said the panel needed to keep the issue alive by passing the House bill.

“If we don’t pass this, we’re going to risk having nothing,” Rhoden said.

Rhoden said details of the bills don’t matter much because South Dakotans tend to obey the law. He said a majority of people will change their habits not because they fear getting caught “but by virtue of the fact it’s against the law.”

The bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, said the law on texting while driving needs to be the same everywhere in South Dakota so drivers don’t have to guess what they can do in each area.

“They need to know the rules of the road are going to be the same wherever they go,” Gosch said.

After the Legislature refused to ban texting in recent years, a half-dozen cities passed their own bans. Gosch said cities and counties should be prohibited from having their own bans because a 1929 state law already bars them from having traffic regulations that conflict with state law.

Lobbyists for insurance companies, auto manufacturers and transportation organizations urged lawmakers to ban texting. Some said they don’t care about the details of a ban.

“We don’t care how you do it. Just get it done this year,” Bob Miller of the Dakota Transit Association said.

“The goal here should be to remind drivers to keep their attention on the road,” Matt McCaulley of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said.

But Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said he and other law enforcement officials oppose the bill because it seems aimed mostly at preventing cities from imposing their own bans. He said texting while driving should be banned to save lives, and he objected to a provision in the bill that would prevent officers from seizing someone’s phone to check whether the driver had been texting behind the wheel.

“This is not an instance where the people need to be protected from the police. This is an instance where people need to be protected from each other,” Allender said.

The House bill approved by the committee Wednesday would prohibit driving 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 using voice-operated or hands-free technology.

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