POLITICS

SD lawmakers pass ban on texting while driving

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A man who caused a fatal accident while texting behind the wheel and the widow of the man who died told state lawmakers Friday it's time for South Dakota to join the other 39 states that have banned texting while driving.

Justin Iburg of Mitchell said he was texting in September 2010 when he rammed into other vehicles stopped in a construction zone. Iburg, who was 20 at the time of the crash and later convicted of reckless driving, showed a Senate committee a slideshow of photos of the accident scene and of the victim, Jon Christensen.

Christensen's widow, Janean, said her 44-year-old husband was killed while riding his motorcycle home after the family ate at a restaurant to celebrate their son's 13th birthday. She cried as she said her husband would still be alive if Iburg had been paying attention to the road instead of his phone.

"Telling my children that their dad was gone was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," said Christensen, who also lives in Mitchell. "It is time something is done so other families won't have to go through the pain."

Iburg, who gives presentations about the crash to young people as part of his criminal sentence, added: "On that day, so many lives were changed. ... It's not worth dying for. Don't let this be you."

The Senate Transportation Committee heeded the message, voting 5-2 to endorse a proposed texting ban similar to measures that have been repeatedly rejected in recent years. The bill next goes to the full Senate.

Supporters hope lawmakers will look more favorably on the idea now because four South Dakota cities in the past year have imposed their own bans on texting while driving. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have already banned texting behind the wheel.

The bill would prohibit typing, sending or reading a text message while driving, but it would continue to allow drivers to make cellphone calls and use hands-free electronic devices. It also would prevent cities from imposing any ordinance that varies from state law, a provision lawmakers said is needed to prevent a patchwork of varying texting bans across the state.

A violation of the texting ban would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The measure's main sponsor, Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, acknowledged that enforcement could be difficult but said a law would deter people from texting while driving simply because it would be illegal.

"For me, it's not about tickets. It's not about fines. It's about creating a culture of not texting while driving," said Vehle, chairman of the committee. "How do you change that culture? You need to pass a law first."

Terry Sorensen of Sioux Falls also told the committee how his son was killed last year in an accident caused by a texting driver, saying: "It needs to stop." Representatives of insurance companies, trucking companies, police chiefs and prosecutors also urged the committee to pass the bill.

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 2009 study of commercial-vehicle drivers found that those texting while driving were 23 times more likely than non-texting drivers to be involved in crashes, near crashes or other risky behavior such as drifting into another lane, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, said he voted against the measure because he thinks a texting ban would be difficult to enforce. He said he believes the state should instead increase enforcement of an existing law banning careless driving.

Mitchell Police Chief Lyndon Overweg said enforcing the careless driving law requires seeing a driver do something dangerous, and by that time it's often too late to prevent an accident. But he said law officers in 39 other states are enforcing texting bans, so South Dakota officers will also be able to do so.

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