PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Legislature has repeatedly refused to ban texting while driving, declining to join the 39 other states that have already done so.
However, South Dakota lawmakers may look more favorably on the idea this year because four South Dakota cities in the past year have imposed their own bans on texting.
Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who plans to introduce a texting ban in the legislative session that begins Tuesday, said lawmakers who have been sitting on the fence might support a ban now that Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown and Huron have passed their own.
Vehle said it's time to pass a state law banning texting while driving so the law is the same in every community. His measure would prohibit cities and counties from having bans that differ from his proposed state law, which would prohibit writing, reading or sending text-based messages while driving.
"What I'm trying to avoid is a patchwork of different laws as you're driving down the road," Vehle said. "It should be the same all the way across the state."
U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is trying to get the remaining 11 states to enact bans, citing statistics that indicate texting while driving is dangerous. A DOT website, www.distraction.gov , says a 2009 study of commercial vehicle drivers found those texting while driving were 23 times more likely than non-texting drivers to be involved in crashes, near crashes or other risky activity such as drifting into another lane.
The DOT also reports that 18 percent of all 2010 crashes resulting in injuries involved a distracted driver. Those distractions include texting, using a cellphone, eating and drinking, but texting is the most alarming because it requires so much attention from drivers, according to the department's website.
South Dakota lawmakers so far have refused to tell drivers what to do, arguing that it would be difficult to enforce a ban on texting and there's little evidence a ban would reduce crashes, particularly in the state's wide open spaces where towns are often 20 miles or more apart.
Rep. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg, has voted against bans in the past because it would be difficult to enforce, but said he will decide how to vote this year after seeing the details of any bill introduced. The bans passed by four cities at least indicate the issue is on people's minds, he said.
"I'll take a good look at it again," Cronin said. "I just think personal responsibility dictates what happens. If you want to be a good driver, you put the phone down."
Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, voted against the measure a year ago and said he's still opposed to it. He said it may be better to focus on enforcing the existing law against distracted driving because drivers also take their eyes off the road when they're eating or picking up something a child has dropped in the back seat.
Vehle said he agrees with opponents that a texting ban would be difficult to enforce because law enforcement officers would have trouble determining whether drivers are texting or just talking on a cell phone. But he said no one argues that it's safe to text while behind the wheel.
Vehle believes a state law would cut down on texting while driving because most drivers would voluntarily comply with it.
"I want to create a culture that we don't do it any time, not only when there's an officer around," Vehle said.
Senate Democratic Leader Jason Frerichs, of Wilmot, said the passage of bans by four cities might boost the changes of passing a statewide ban on texting while driving.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said he's not sure the Legislature is ready to pass a ban, but some lawmakers might be persuaded by the lack of problems in the four cities that have imposed bans.
"We're all libertarians in South Dakota. None of us like to be told what to do. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, it takes pretty overwhelming evidence before any of us want to vote to restrict people's liberties," Hunhoff said, adding that when statistics show requiring seat belts or banning texting can save lives, "libertarians become realists."
House Republican Leader David Lust of Rapid City said he has voted against a texting ban in the past, and he's more interested in what can be done to improve teen driving safety. A task force appointed by Legislature has recommended a comprehensive approach to reducing crashes by teen drivers.
Follow Chet Brokaw at http://twitter.com/chetbrokaw