Legislature on Verge of Possible Thumb War

Hannah Baker

The South Dakota legislature might soon revisit whether or not to give the thumbs up to a ban mandating drivers put their thumbs down while behind the wheel.

South Dakota is one of 15 states currently without a law prohibiting texting, reading emails, and the like, while driving. In December, The National Transportation Safety Board recommended all states ban cellphone use while driving, prompting the South Dakota legislature to look at its own laws. If a new texting-while-driving bill is introduced, it will be presented in the South Dakota House of Representatives in the next few weeks.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Pennington, co-sponsored a ban on texting while driving last year, but it died in the House. He said he would support another bill this year, if it’s introduced.

“More and more evidence is showing that accidents are happening [because of texting while driving],” he said. “Something should be done before other bad results.”

However, not everyone agrees with a texting-while-driving ban. Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, said it’s impossible to pass a law banning every “stupid thing” a person does.

“A lot of times when people are texting they are holding their phones up by the wheel, but if we pass a law making this illegal they won’t quit texting, they’ll be trying to hide it and text from their laps,” she said. “This would be far more dangerous than it is right now because then people will be looking down.”

During 2010, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety reported that Brookings County had four instances where an accident occurred that reportedly involved cellular or electronic devices. There were also 22 instances where distracted driving was at play.

Olson, who has been an EMT for over 30 years, said passing a law would not make texting while driving disappear.

“We have a law against drunk driving and that doesn’t make every person stop from driving drunk,” she said. “If I thought there was any chance this could pass I’d be in favor of it, but I’ve been around a long time, being an EMT and my dad’s been a cop, and I know passing a law won’t stop it.”

According to AAA, the foundation for traffic safety, most people view texting and emailing while driving as a very serious threat to their own personal safety and consider it completely unacceptable. However, more than 1 in 4 (26 percent) admit to typing or sending a text message or email while driving in the past month. Also, more than 1 in 3 (35 percent) report reading a text message or email while driving in the past month.

Tieszen said he believed if there was a law prohibiting texting while driving, most people would put down their cellphones while behind the wheel.

“You heard stories how people wouldn’t comply with the smoking ban, but people are. Most people would comply with a law on texting, too—not everyone, but most,” he said.

Despite not believing texting will disappear in response to passing a law, Olson said enforcing such a law would be impossible for law enforcement officers. She said, while it is obvious when people are talking on their cellphone, it would be very difficult to prove that someone was actually texting while they were driving.

“To have the cops have to pay attention while they’re enforcing real criminal acts – like someone weaving down the road drunk or speeding in and out of traffic – but some little old lady talking on their phone who isn’t weaving all around, makes no sense to lock her up for it,” Olson said.

Brookings Police Chief Jeff Miller if a law were to pass, the best way he sees it being enforced is if a driver were stopped for something else first, like running a stop sign or speeding and not wearing a seatbelt at the same time.

“Otherwise it would be very hard to detect,” he said. “But if an accident happened, those cellphone records could be subpoenaed and then we’d be able to see if the driver was texting when the accident occurred, which then depending on how the law is written the driver would have charges added.”

Miller said he suspects most law enforcement officers would be in favor of the law if it was introduced and passed.

“Texting is even more dangerous than drunk driving because you’re already distracted and then your head is facing your lap,” he said. “…texting can cause accidents.”

Trevor Potts, a senior nursing major from Sturgis, said, although he regularly texts while he drives, having a texting ban would be beneficial for safety on the road. However, like Olson, he said enforcing the law would be nearly impossible.

“Texting definitely slows down your reaction time so it could be a good thing [to have a law prohibiting it], but how could you prove something like that?” he said. “There’s no way to enforce something like that and I think that’s where they’ll have trouble drafting and passing the law.”