Sending a clear message?

Legislators try to make call on text ban

By Randy Dockendorf

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has indicated he would sign a ban on texting while driving, his lieutenant governor said Thursday, Feb. 13.

Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, a Yankton native, made that statement Thursday during the weekly press conference held during the legislative session. Michels was filling in for Daugaard, who is attending the World Ag Expo in California.

Michels later told the Press & Dakotan in an interview that the governor was committed to a texting ban in nearly any form.

“(Daugaard) said, in the past, if a bill came to his desk, … that he would sign it,” he said.

The consequences of texting while driving hit close to home for nearly everyone, Michels said.

“We all know individuals who text and drive, and those who have been in accidents (because of the distraction),” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, and there’s no reason for it.”

Michels admits he has been guilty of the practice. “I’m in a car a lot, so I shoot off an e-mail (while driving),” he said.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Legislature’s texting bills is being watched closely in Vermillion, where the city adopted its own ban last May.

Vermillion’s ordinance treats texting while driving as a primary offense, said City Manager John Prescott. Violators are fined $54 with $60 court costs for a total of $114.

“We didn’t want the amount to be onerous, but we also didn’t want it treated like a parking ticket,” the city manager told the Press & Dakotan.

The Vermillion City Council proposed implementing a city ban in January 2013, Prescott said.

“A couple of councilors felt it was something that needed to be addressed. The council was looking at a texting ban as an important thing to have for public safety in the community,” he said.

“There had been two or three times that it had been addressed at the statewide level and didn’t happen. Now, it was something that cities were adopting.”

After discussion, the Vermillion council waited to see if the 2013 Legislature enacted a statewide texting ban, Prescott said.

“The 2013 session came and went, and there was nothing with a texting ban, so we moved forward with it,” he said. “We became the fourth community in the state to adopt it, following Sioux Falls, Huron and Watertown. Mitchell came after us, and Pennington County also has a texting ban.”

When drafting its ordinance, Vermillion used language similar to Sioux Falls and other communities that had already passed a texting ban, Prescott said. The Vermillion ordinance became law in early May, but the city held off on enforcement until receiving state approval last fall for signs informing the public of Vermillion’s texting ban.

Ironically, the approval process ran into a hitch because state officials hadn’t needed to deal with their own texting ban, Prescott said.

“We learned from the state that they really don’t have language to address a texting ban and what a sign could or couldn’t say,” the city manager said. “That delayed things a little bit, but at least we had the signs posted before we started ticketing people. It wasn’t a requirement, but we wanted the signs up. That way, it was a little bit of a warning.”

In the meantime, Vermillion officials embarked on an education program concerning the new texting ban, he said. The city used newspaper advertisements and other means to inform the public about the change before going into full enforcement mode.

“We have issued six tickets so far, and most of those have come since Dec. 1,” he said.

Now, Vermillion officials are wondering if their city ordinance will be overturned and replaced with a weaker statewide ban, Prescott said.

“We have been following it in the Legislature,” he said. “Prior to the session, I hadn’t heard much about a texting ban. My sense is that it was a carry-over issue from previous sessions, and they are taking it on today.”

Prescott also believes local governments were taking the lead with a grassroots effort on texting bans, prompting the Legislature to act.

“The Legislature might have looked around, when they didn’t set up a statewide ban, and saw the cities and other local jurisdictions were taking a different (approach). I think it’s what has caused the Legislature to take another look.”

The final form of a texting ban remains to be seen, Michels said. One bill has cleared the House and has moved to the Senate where it will be assigned to a committee. However, another bill may come out of the Senate, he said.

The “crossover” day, when legislation must be passed out of its original house and moved to the other chamber, comes in about two weeks, he said.

Michels predicts a great deal of political wrangling before any bill arrives on the governor’s desk. He foresees debates arising over public safety versus civil liberties and the fate of stronger local texting bans already in place.

“I really believe this is a bill that will be around at the end (of the session),” he said. “I think there will be very, very vigorous debate over individual rights and the communities’ ability to legislate. But you are also balancing those concerns with the matter of consistency. When you are driving in Sioux Falls versus Worthing, how do you know that it’s different (in terms of a texting ban)? This statewide ban would avoid a patchwork of laws.”

Why would the Legislature be willing to pass a texting ban this year when previous efforts have failed? Michels believes support for the House bill lies in its lesser penalty and method of enforcement.

“I think the big turn (for support of the House bill) was making it a secondary offense, that someone isn’t pulled over just for texting,” he said. “A really good comparison for why I think this will work, and why the sponsors think it will work, is that (the secondary offense) has been used for seat belts.”

However, such an approach by the Legislature worries Vermillion officials, Prescott said.

“The (Vermillion) council supports a statewide texting ban but wants it being a primary offense,” he said. “In that regard, the state legislation isn’t as strong as our texting ban, and that would be a disappointment. There are pluses and minuses (for the state legislation). The texting ban is good, but the loss of local control is being upstaged as well.”

Vermillion mayor Jack Powell addressed District 17 lawmakers during the legislative forum earlier this month, Prescott said. However, the House bill has undergone changes since then.

“I have a sense that our council would like to have a local option or a statewide ban that is closer to our city ordinance and makes texting while driving a primary offense,” the city manager said. “There is another texting ban coming out of the Senate side, and I just heard (Thursday) that it makes a provision for local ordinances to remain in effect.”

Any new statewide texting ban would become law July 1, giving Vermillion officials time to remove the city ordinance from the books, Prescott said.

The Vermillion ordinance has not met opposition, he added.

“We have had pretty good support,” he said. “I think we have people at the University (of South Dakota) and the rest of the community who have come from other communities and states with texting bans, so they are more open to it.”

In the process, Vermillion officials have shown their willingness to take the lead on public safety issues, Prescott said.

“For our council, this is an important matter and something that needs to be addressed,” he said.


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