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Lawmakers: Cell-phone restrictions could be coming to South Dakota

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As other states begin passing cell-phone laws, South Dakota lawmakers say they won't be surprised if legislation to ban or limit the use of cellular phones while driving arises again in the next state legislative session.

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"I do feel that there will be somebody that will bring it up again," said state Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell. "I think that's a distinct possibility."

Monday, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law a bill that will make it a crime to send text messages while driving. In addition, anyone younger than 18 is prohibited from using a cellular phone while driving.

In South Dakota, state Sen. Cooper Garnos, RPresho, said he also expects to see some sort of legislation regarding cellular use while driving to appear in next year's session. Garnos is a former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, while Vehle is the current chairman.

"It's not going to go away," Garnos said.

Both Vehle and Garnos said they have seen various incarnations of bills similar to that signed in Colorado this week.

In 2004, legislators rejected a bill that would have made it illegal for drivers with minor's permits to operate a motor vehicle while using a cellular telephone or other wireless telecommunications devices except to report an emergency. The bill was killed in the Senate Transportation Committee when it was deferred to the 36th legislative day.

Garnos said cell-phone usage can sometimes be a factor in accidents, but he also feels the argument is one of safety and individual

rights.

"To me, it's common sense (that) if you're going down the road 75 miles per hour, you probably shouldn't be texting somebody or ... be on the cell phone," Garnos said. "How far do you go and how far do you legislate common sense?"

Vehle said potential legislation should take into account the differences between rural and urban settings in the state.

"(W)e have long stretches of road on the interstates where it's uneventful driving, generally, and that's different than if you're in six lanes of traffic downtown Sioux Falls and you're trying to text," Vehle said. "There's just a whole lot of difference there and so I think all those things you have to take into consideration."

Lyndon Overweg, chief of Mitchell's Department of Public Safety, said drivers using cell phones aren't a big problem in Mitchell, but his department still wants drivers to exercise caution while using cell phones on the road.

"The best thing is to pull over if you have to do texting or dialing or anything like that," Overweg said.

Overweg believes legislation to limit or ban cell phones eventually will be passed in South Dakota, and that's a potential situation that suits him just fine.

"Any time we can enhance the safety of the road and take away distractions, that's what we're after," Overweg said.

Brooke Bohnenkamp, public information officer for the state Department of Public Safety, said cell-phone usage was reported as a contributing factor in 138 South Dakota crashes in 2008. Of those, one was fatal and 57 included some type of injury.

Bohnenkamp said people who take actions that divert their attention away from driving, including text messaging and cell-phone use, can be found in violation of the state's "careless driving" law.

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