By Bryan Betts, Editor-in-Chief
On the first of next month, students who drive downtown while texting or talking on their phone could see flashing blue lights in their rear view mirrors.
It won’t be an April Fools’ joke either.
The City of Greenville recently passed an ordinance banning distracted driving within the city limits, a measure that prohibits drivers from using a mobile phone or “other portable electronic communication device” while operating a vehicle. Under the new law, drivers can only use a phone while legally parked, which means that using a phone is still prohibited while a driver is stopped in traffic, at a stoplight, or in a carpool line.
Use of mobile devices is allowed if it is hands free, which the ordinance defines as not holding a mobile device in the hands and manipulating the keyboard or screen. This means that drivers may talk on a mobile phone if they use Bluetooth or secure the phone in a cradle or other holder.
The law allows police officers to pull over drivers for distracted driving and to charge a fine of up to $100 for a first offense. Fines increase for repeat offenses and can eventually lead to confiscation and destruction of the mobile phone.
Leslie Fletcher, communications manager for the City of Greenville, said the city will be putting up signs at entrances to the city and billboards with reminders of the ordinance. From Furman, drivers reach the city limits at the intersection where Poinsett Highway becomes Rutherford Street.
Yet Fletcher said that a larger goal of the ordinance is to promote safe driving habits both on and off Greenville streets.
“Our hope is that you will drive more safely whether you’re in the city or not,” she said.
According to data from Distraction.gov, the U.S. government’s website for distracted driving, 3,328 people were killed and 421,000 were injured in distraction-affected crashes in 2012.
Police officers, Fletcher said, have been trained to enforce the ordinance but would have the discretion to issue warnings as drivers adjust to the new law.
“They know that there’s going to be a learning curve,” she said, adding that officers would not be hunting for distracted drivers.
South Carolina is one of the only states that does not have any laws against distracted driving, and Greenville is one of the first cities in the state to pass such an ordinance.
Fletcher said council members formed an ad hoc committee last year to research distracted driving laws. The committee quickly realized that banning only texting would make it difficult for officers to identify whether drivers were texting or making a phone call, so the ordinance was written to make enforcement easier by banning all mobile phone use.
The ordinance does not cover other forms of distracted driving like applying makeup, smoking, or eating while driving because the city wanted to focus on what it viewed as the more significant danger of mobile phones, Fletcher said.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and the city plans to use community events to get the word out about the new ordinance and the dangers of distracted driving. Fletcher said the city has also committed to reviewing the ordinance six months after its implementation.
“I’ve heard the city manager say more than once: ‘This is not about writing tickets. This is about changing behavior,’” Fletcher said.
More information about Greenville’s distracted driving ordinance can be found online at http://www.greenvillesc.gov/CityCouncil/DistractedDriving.aspx.