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Distracted driving law draws confusion: City is not banning eating behind the wheel

Posted: Monday, Dec 10th, 2012

HURON — Still a few weeks before it goes on the books, the city’s new texting and driving ban has generally had a positive reaction from the public.

But the distracted driving component — while intended to be less of a consequence than a reckless driving ticket —has led to some misinformation.

Calls and emails to Mayor David McGirr have come in from those who question how it will be implemented and enforced. He thinks a lot of that has been caused by television reports telling viewers Huron is now prohibiting eating and driving.

“There isn’t a ban on eating and you won’t be arrested for possession of a hamburger when you’re driving down the street,” he said.

But most states do ban texting and driving and people understand the danger it poses.

Accident statistics in Huron show that hundreds of crashes, dozens of injuries and one fatality can be directly linked to texting while behind the wheel.

“So how can we look the other way in good conscious?” McGirr said.

Three or four cities in the state have now passed local ordinances and the hope is that legislators who also support a ban can convince enough of their colleagues in the upcoming session to finally approve a statewide ban.

That will allow for the education of out-of-state drivers that texting and driving is against the law throughout South Dakota and not just in a few of the larger cities. In-state drivers won’t have to wonder if a town they are visiting has imposed a ban.

It is the secondary offense of distracted driving, which like the texting and driving ban goes into effect about the first of the year, which has been misunderstood.

Already illegal is crossing over the center line or swerving when reading something, adjusting the radio or attending to a pet or child — anything that would cause a driver to be a danger to others.

“So we didn’t need this law to make that illegal,” McGirr said.

“But with this law there’s a little softer landing when you get pulled over because it’s only a $15 fine if you’re cited for distracted driving,” he said.

The alternative — a reckless driving ticket — results in a fine of several hundred dollars and a detrimental impact on one’s insurance rates.

Since Police Chief Gary Will Jr. and others on the Public Safety Committee were asked to look into distracted driving there have been three related incidents on city streets.

• A motorist was eating pizza and hit a youngster on a bicycle. The officer could prove careless/reckless driving and charge with that.

“So clearly he was driving while distracted, but the violation was serious enough that we went with the higher charges anyway,” Will said.

• A driver made a left-hand turn across two lanes of traffic, but there were no cars to the left at the time and he didn’t cut anybody off or endanger anyone.

He then drove down the center of the two northbound lanes, but wasn’t swerving.

“He was just driving in the middle of the road. Nobody was endangered,” Will said.

“We couldn’t make a case for careless or reckless driving, but the driving was so bad that he needed something more than I could give him a ticket for,” he said.

• Just a few days ago, an officer witnessed a car nearly hit the curb to the right, jerk back to the left, cross the center line and then go back. It was clearly a case of careless driving.

When the officer asked the driver what happened, he said he had been distracted by his passengers. The officer felt a high penalty wasn’t justified, but something was necessary.

“He needed to be reminded to drive responsibly,” Will said. A ticket was in order, but not something as serious as careless or reckless driving.

McGirr said he has also been asked why reading a text remains legal while sending one is not in the new law.

“When you receive it, it’s out of your control and shouldn’t be illegal,” he said.

It’s not necessarily hazardous to read a five- or 10-word text.

“But once you start composing it, that’s when you have those long periods of five to 10 seconds that your eye is not on the road, typically,” he said.

When Will was working in law enforcement in Oregon, he would spot drivers texting in a car alongside his patrol vehicle. It is illegal to text and drive in that state.

“They would be so engrossed in it that they wouldn’t even notice the police car next to them with the lights on,” McGirr said. “You don’t think that’s distracting if you’re doing that?”

Ideally, drivers will pull over to the side of the road to send a text. The ban does not extend to talking on the phone because the public is probably not ready for that.

“We don’t promote it, but we didn’t ban it,” McGirr said.

And people can still eat that hamburger while driving, but officials hope they do it responsibly.

“We didn’t ban eating any more than we banned adjusting your radio or talking to your passengers or adjusting your mirror,” McGirr said.

The city is also not making money by writing tickets for distracted driving, as some have charged. It costs more than $15 to write a citation.

“The goal is to get people to recognize that we all do things that are distracting in modern society,” Will said.

“We just have to be responsible doing it while we’re driving a ton or two down the road that could kill somebody,” he said.

For the complete article see the 12-09-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 12-09-2012 paper.

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