A push to ban text messaging while driving has begun its travels through South Dakota's 2011 legislative session.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, introduced Senate Bill 71 to halt what he sees as an accelerating problem. If passed, the bill would level a Class 2 misdemeanor (up to 30 days jail time and a $500 fine) against offenders who are caught writing, reading or sending text-based communications from the driver's seat.

"I think it's time we take a firm stance against it," said Tieszen, who introduced the bill on Friday. "Texting is the proverbial lowest-hanging fruit. I believe it is the most dangerous of the various driving distractions."

It has been reported that 20 percent of injury crashes in the United States in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving. Of those killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995, or 18 percent, involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pat Suiter, instructor and owner of Black Hills Driver Education, said he adjusted his school's curriculum to add a section on distracted driving, which includes texting.

"It has the potential to create an accident situation," Suiter said. "People need all of their faculties, all of their attention, to concentrate on their driving."

The long-time teacher supports a texting ban and said it would be a good way for South Dakota to send a message that texting while driving is unacceptable behavior.

"When something becomes illegal it creates a cultural consciousness, it cannot help but have an impact," Suiter said. "If it saves one life, it's well worth it."

If South Dakota's ban is passed, texting would be allowed when the vehicle is parked, to contact an emergency response vehicle or to get a phone number or name to make a call.

A ban comes with its share of opponents who cite infringement of civil liberties and enforcement challenges. During last year's legislative session, a similar bill was voted down in the House of Representatives by five votes.

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said he needs more time to review the legislation but said now may be the time for more education on the consequences of distracted driving instead of an all-out ban.

Thom said he also sees a need for some clarification of the bill. He is concerned the bill's terminology -- "electronic wireless communication device" -- could apply to equipment law enforcement use in their vehicles, which could impede their jobs.

Former Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway said he supports the ban. The innocent people who are hurt by texting drivers are the people whose rights are infringed, he said Although enforcement of such a law may be a challenge, Holloway said South Dakotans are going to comply just because it's a law.

"A vast majority of our citizenry abide by our laws on the books," Holloway said. "A lot of people will comply just because it's against the law."

Tieszen said the bill may have enough momentum to pass this year. A few legislators that voted the bill down in 2010 are responding favorably to this year's legislation, he said.

An Associated Press survey showed 43 percent of legislators who responded to the wire service's pre-legislative-session poll said they would support an effort to outlaw texting while driving, 36 percent were opposed and 21 percent were undecided.

Even though the issue divides state legislators, a 2010 Department of Public Safety Driver Survey shows South Dakotans favor a ban. The survey polled 751 licensed drivers and state identification card holders ages 16 and up through a telephone-based questionnaire from June 21 to June 27, 2010.

Of the people polled, 91.3 percent answered "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" in support of a texting ban; 7.3 percent answered "strongly disagree" or "somewhat disagree;" 1.3 percent were undecided. The survey was a collaboration between the South Dakota Department of Public Safety and the University of South Dakota Government Research Bureau.

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If passed, South Dakota would be the 31st state to ban texting while driving; 12 states enacted a law in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

AAA South Dakota's focus is a reduction in all distracted driving, according to Mark Madeja, the insurance sales manager and club spokesman.

"As society moves faster and we all continue this race to multitask, we have to step back and really look at everything that encompasses distracted driving," Madeja said.

A texting ban is something the national AAA organization would like to see implemented in all 50 states.

"It's a new and growing trend, and it is something that needs some teeth behind its discouragement behind the wheel," Madeja said.

Andy Ainslie, a Rapid City-based State Farm Insurance agent, would like to see the ban taken a step further and only allow for hands-free communication while driving. A stricter ban would also eliminate any confusion about which driver is texting and which is dialing or answering a phone call, he said.

"This is a start in the right direction," said Ainslie, a 20-year insurance veteran. "It means safer roads and ultimately reduced premiums."

The state Senate referred the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Tieszen chairs. He anticipates the bill's hearing to be two weeks from Tuesday.

Contact Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or holly.meyer@rapidcityjournal.com.


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