If u think RC needs 2 ban txting, u might hav 2 w8 til l8r.

Just typing out a text message like that is enough of a distraction to a driver that seven East River communities and 41 states have passed laws prohibiting texting while driving.

But not Rapid City.

South Dakota is one of nine states without a statewide ban on texting or cell phone use while driving, according to itcanwait.com, the campaign by AT&T to raise awareness of the dangers of texting and driving. 

A new statewide ban on handheld devices for novice drivers makes South Dakota one of the six states with only a partial ban. The others are Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri and Mississippi. Only three states have no ban on texting while driving: Montana, Arizona and South Carolina. All other states ban at least texting while driving and 11 include a ban on handheld device usage while driving.

Police officials in Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Watertown, Brookings, Vermillion, and Huron agree that their laws have been successful, if only because people are more likely to not text if there is a law against it.

In these areas and across the country, the laws are passed and followed by an extensive public service campaign to announce the new restrictions and encourage people to follow the law for the safety of them and everyone else on the road. 

Officials say ticketing drivers is not the ultimate goal. They hope to bring awareness of the dangers and change the culture. Sioux Falls has had the ban in effect since November and 19 tickets have been issued.

"The point wasn't to go out there and write a bunch of tickets. The point was to get people to pay attention to the road," said Sam Clemens, public information officer for the Sioux Falls Police Department.  "We know that once there is a law out there most people are going to obey it. Most people don’t speed; most stop at stop signs."

The fines in the communities vary with court costs, but current estimates from local police chiefs include $95 in Sioux Falls, $100 in Brookings, $114 in Vermillion, $160 in Huron, $120 in Mitchell and $200 in Watertown.

Mitchell Police Chief Lyndon Overweg said he has noticed a difference around town since the texting ban went into effect this spring. 

"The one thing I've personally noticed is that people are pulling over and going to their cell phones," Overweg said. "As long as they legally pull over and park, they can do it. We have not issued many tickets, for the first several weeks put out a directive to issue warnings and then we got some signs up around town to inform people texting and driving is illegal."

But Rapid City officials don't seem to be on the same page. 

City Attorney Joel Landeen said he has not seen much interest in a texting ban for drivers in Rapid City. 

"I don’t have the public calling me about it, but I've had members of TV and print media," Landeen said.

He said, however, there is nothing stopping Rapid City officials from banning texting or cell phone use while driving. The initiative could come from council members or even members of the public.

Rapid City Council member Charity Doyle said that as a mom she would support a ban, but she is skeptical about the ability of law enforcement to enforce it.

"As far as being a mother and having a teenage daughter who is on the road ... I like what the cities East River are doing. I think it’s a good thing. It's not going to stop it entirely, but making it punitive will make it so people are accountable for their actions."

Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said texting and driving is part of a larger problem of distracted driving, which can include anything from eating to putting on makeup.

He supports the statewide ban for novice drivers.

"The good of this law is it will be on the mind of parents and teens who will then follow the law out respect for the law ... and that will make them a better driver," Allender said.

And while he is not sure Rapid City should pursue a texting ban, he does support a statewide ban. However, he said for a ban on texting to be enforceable, there must be a ban on using a handheld device while driving.

"And I don't think the public is ready to get behind that," Allender said.

There is one place just outside of Rapid City that bans all handheld device usage while driving — Ellsworth Air Force Base. And that law has been in effect for bases since 2006.

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“Use of those devices impairs driving and masks or prevents recognition of emergency signals, alarms, announcements, the approach of vehicles and human speech," Defense Department regulations state. "DOD component safety guidance should note the potential for driver distractions such as eating and drinking, operating radios, CD players, global positioning equipment, etc. Whenever possible, this should only be done when the vehicle is safely parked.”

Meanwhile, the South Dakota Legislature has rejected multiple proposals to ban texting while driving.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, a Republican from Rapid City and former police chief, said he expects another measure to be introduced in the next legislature. But, he is not sure if any of the opposition the measure faced last session will be swayed by the multiple city ordinances being adopted.

"I'm not sure the arguments you hear are the true reason people aren’t supporting it," Tieszen said Thursday. "They say it's an individual right to drive like you want even though you put other people in danger. Frankly, there are legislators that like to text and drive and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon."

"I think we ought to have a uniform statewide ban so that no matter where people are driving, be it on a city street or a rural road, that it be against the law to engage in that dangerous activity," he said.

Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen said his city has only issued warnings after its ban went into effect on May 1.

"It is a difficult law to enforce because of the way its worded," Betzen said. "You can still make a phone call, so the officer has to watch long enough to determine whether they are making a phone call. But the main impetus is this, and it's especially true for people in South Dakota, if it is against the rules, people will follow it."

He said he was just like everyone else and, before the ban, used his phone while driving. 

"I don’t do it anymore because it’s the right thing to do," Betzen said. "But it's dangerous. It is proven to be a major factor in distracted driver injuries and fatalities. Basically you're shooting down the road in a 2,000-pound piece of metal. You need to make sure you're going in the right direction."

 

 

 

 

Contact Jennifer Naylor Gesick at 394-8415 or jennifer.naylorgesick@rapidcityjournal.com.

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