Frustrated by a lack of action by Rapid City and the Legislature, Pennington County Commissioners voted Tuesday to draft a ban on texting and driving in county limits.
Commissioner Ron Buskerud, who is pushing the proposal, said he fears that too many accidents in the region are a result of drivers who are distracted by cellphones.
"It looks like the state Legislature is not going to do anything and the city council is not going to do anything, so I thought maybe it was time we address the texting while driving situation," he told the board.
Buskerud received support from his fellow commissioners.
"I'm in total agreement with Commissioner Buskerud," said Commissioner Ken Davis. "The Legislature is shirking their responsibility and I think the city council and mayor are shirking their responsibility when it comes to public safety."
But despite the board's enthusiasm for a ban, it was unclear during Tuesday's meeting whether the county could legally implement one.
Under South Dakota law, county governments have only a limited ability to regulate traffic compared to cities. To get around that, Buskerud wants to amend the county's public nuisance ordinance to include texting while driving as a nuisance.
But that novel approach has problems. Drivers in Rapid City and other cities in Pennington County will not be impacted. It's also unclear whether it could even be enacted in the rest of the county.
Jay Alderman, deputy state's attorney, said that's because texting and driving does not fit the typical definition of a "public nuisance," which usually refers to issues that involve planning and land use.
"I guess I would advise you to not take action on this," he told the commissioners.
But Buskerud, a former Pennington County deputy state's attorney, disagreed.
He said part of the ordinance's definition of a nuisance was an act that "annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, or safety of others."
"It seems that texting while driving fits that definition perfectly," he said.
Not every commissioner was convinced. Nancy Trautman said she supported bans on texting while driving, but sided with Alderman's legal assessment that it wouldn't work at the county level.
"I'm not sure if this is the way to go, and I'm going to vote against it," she said.
The board ultimately voted 3-1 to direct the state's attorney's office to draft an amendment to the county's nuisance ordinance. Commissioner Don Holloway was absent.
Before an amendment can take effect, its language must be read and voted upon by the commissioners at two subsequent meetings.
It was difficult to say on Tuesday whether the county's pursuit of a ban would convince Rapid City to follow suit.
Mayor Sam Kooiker said he was unavailable to comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Steve Allender, chief of Rapid City Police, said he supports a statewide ban on texting while driving but not a ban at the city level.
"It doesn't seem logical to me that drivers should have to accept a new set of driving rules as they drive across the state," he said.
In addition, Allender said texting while driving was only one element of a wider problem of distracted driving. He said he would like the Legislature to craft a bill that gave police the ability to cite drivers who were heavily distracted by any activity, not just texting.
He said he's observed drivers putting on make-up to eating a bowl of cereal.
"I've seen cars go down the road and it looks like nobody's driving because they're reaching down to the floor," he said.
Some councilors have also raised concerns about whether texting bans are effective.
During Tuesday's meeting, Buskerud agreed that texting bans are difficult to enforce, but he compared it to the legal requirement for drivers to wear seat belts.
"Of course it's difficult but not impossible," he said. "And I don't view it as any reason just to throw it away because enforcement is difficult."