S.D. Senate committe approves no-texting bill

PIERRE (AP) � A bill that would outlaw texting while driving was endorsed by a South Dakota legislative panel Tuesday after lawmakers heard stories of people killed or injured by drivers who caused crashes while texting.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-1 to endorse the bill and send it to the full Senate for further debate.

Miss South Dakota Loren Vaillancourt of Huron led testimony in favor of the bill, describing how her brother was killed in a crash caused by a texting driver. She said her brother was a passenger in a vehicle in 2009 when the driver pulled in front of a truck while texting.

"There is no reason something like that should happen to anybody," Vaillancourt said, crying as she talked to the committee. "It is an intentional neglect that endangers other people on the road."

Vaillancourt has made distracted driving her platform during her term as Miss South Dakota, and she said young people are beginning to understand that texting while driving is dangerous. They are telling their parents to stop texting while driving, she said.

"I hope you understand the magnitude of this issue and the lives that could be saved if this bill is passed," Vaillancourt said.

Only one person testified against the bill, Sioux Falls lawyer Ryan Kolbeck, representing the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He said the measure would not stop all distracted driving but could lead law officers to violate people's rights by checking their cell phones without warrants. The proposed fine also is too severe, Kolbeck said.

Rather than making texting while driving a crime, the Legislature should instead encourage parents to use programs that would prevent their kids' phones from texting while moving more than 10 mph. Some telephone companies offer that feature, he said.

The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said the proposal is constitutional. Courts can deal with any police misconduct or unconstitutional searches, he said.

"It's time to act on this issue," said Tieszen, retired Rapid City police chief.

The measure would make it a Class 2 misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, for a driver to compose, read or send an electronic text message while operating a vehicle. The ban also would apply when someone is stopped at an intersection.

The bill would not prohibit the use of cell phones for voice calls. Exemptions are allowed for texting in an emergency, while legally parked or while using voice-operated or hands-free technology.

After Tieszen's bill was approved, the sponsor of a similar bill asked the committee to defer his measure. Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City, said he would rewrite his bill to deal with other aspects of distracted driving.

Most states have been tackling distracted driving in some fashion, with at least 30 states and the District of Columba banning texting while driving. Many states also have put other restrictions on the use of cell phones, particularly by teen drivers. Federal officials have estimated that nearly 5,500 people were killed and half a million were injured in 2009 in crashes involving a distracted driver.

Tieszen said his bill focuses on texting, which he called the worst form of distracted driving. Texting takes more time and causes a greater distraction than just punching in a phone number to make a voice call, he said.

Kolbeck said the bill should be changed to make texting while driving only a petty offense, which carries a $25 fine. He also said the measure should make it clear law officers cannot check a cell phone without a warrant or subpoena to see if a driver was texting at the time of a traffic stop. Even with a warrant, an officer should be allowed to determine only if a call was made, not the content of a text message, he said.

"I believe the privacy interest a person has in their cell phone is comparable to the privacy interest we have in our home," the defense lawyer said.

However, Lt. James Johns of the Rapid City Police Department said officers would need a search warrant to determine if a cell phone was being used at the time of an accident. A ban on texting while driving would help officers make the roads safer, he said.

Janean Christensen of Mitchell told the committee how her husband was killed while stopped on a motorcycle at a construction zone. A texting driver failed to stop and hit the motorcycle, she said.

"It's time something gets done so maybe another family won't have to go through this pain," Christensen said.

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