SC texting while driving law strikes a balance

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – Motor vehicle laws in South Carolina are an often-evolving list. New rules are written and old ones changed as new public policy issues and road safety concerns arise. A great example of this was about a year ago, when South Carolina joined a majority of other states in outlawing texting while driving.

As is often the case, the new law was a compromise that balanced traffic safety for everyone with individual liberty.

We want to stop drivers who endanger others when they insist on texting about their weekend plans while driving on our roads. National data indicate that distracted driving led to 3,328 deaths in 2012 alone, with 11 percent of young drivers admitting they were texting at the time of an automobile accident.

But we do not want to prevent a responsible driver from safely using a phone’s map to find a destination. The new law attempts to reach this reasonable compromise by stating specifically what is and is not allowed. It also limits what an officer can do in these cases.

Unfortunately, the language in law is certain to present glaring problems for officers tasked with enforcing it.

What the “texting while driving” law actually says

South Carolina’s “texting while driving law” defines a “wireless electronic communication device” as including a telephone, personal digital assistant, text-messaging device, or computer that lets someone wirelessly communicate with another.

A “text-based communication” includes a text message, an SMS message, an instant message or an email.

The law makes it illegal to use a wireless electronic communication device to compose, send, or read a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle on public streets and highways. A violation is a misdemeanor non-criminal offense, with no points on the driver’s license and a $25 fine with no court costs.

However, the ban does not apply when someone is lawfully parked or stopped or using a hands-free device. It does not apply when summoning emergency help. Drivers also can use global positioning system devices or GPS features on other devices to navigate or find out information about traffic and road conditions.

There also are limits on law enforcement. Drivers cannot be stopped unless the officer has a “clear and unobstructed view” of a driver using the device to write, send or read a text. Officers cannot seize, search or view the device. They cannot search the vehicle, driver or passengers after a stop for a texting violation. Neither can they take someone into custody for a violation unless there’s an outstanding warrant for failure to appear or failure to pay a fine.

Logic and common sense would suggest, that unless the officer happens to be riding shotgun in the passenger seat beside the accused, it is impossible to know whether that driver is using a map feature or sending a text.

Moreover, because the officer can’t seize, search, or view your phone, that means he can’t check your recent texts or even look to see if your phone has a navigation app.

Important for drivers to know SC law

Although South Carolina’s new anti-texting law raises many questions and concerns, it is a step in the right direction.   It is important for all drivers to understand our state’s laws and to know what they can and cannot do while behind the wheel.

It is also important for drivers to know that they can contest any traffic ticket. Though the consequences of a “texting while driving” violation are not severe, some drivers might want to consult an attorney and fight the charge merely on principle.

And at times, a “texting while driving” violation can lead to other charges that a driver will want to contest. For example, a driver stopped for texting can be cited for a more serious charge such as driving under the influence. If the texting stop was illegal, the DUI charge can be thrown out, too.

Information or interaction on this page should not be construed as establishing a client-attorney relationship or as legal advice. For advice about your specific situation, please consult one of our attorneys.