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Vehle changes his texting bill to more resemble House measure

State lawmakers are considering a statewide texting ban that some worry would be too weak. (File photo)

PIERRE — The Legislature’s strongest proponent of a ban against texting while driving a motor vehicle decided Tuesday night he needed to change his approach. 

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, listened to the audio archives of testimony from a House committee hearing and from the House debate on the texting ban that is proposed by Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City.

Vehle concluded that his proposal needed to be changed to more closely resemble Gosch’s bill.

So on Wednesday morning, Vehle took amendments to the Senate committee hearing on his bill, SB 179.

He dropped the section that would have allowed municipalities to have texting bans tough- er than a state ban.

Some cities have already adopted local bans after the Legislature didn’t pass a ban last year. What would happen to those local bans isn’t clear yet.

But Gosch said a 1929 state law limits the extent that local governments can pass their own traffi c regulations.

Gosch’s bill consequently has a provision that Vehle’s bill doesn’t: A declaration that the Legislature is “the exclusive regulator of all matters relating to distracted driving and use of electronic wireless communication devices in motor vehicles.”

Vehle also had his bill changed Wednesday so a violation would be treated as a secondary offense. That means law enforcement would need a reason other than texting to stop a driver.

Vehle kept his $100 fi ne in his bill, however. The Gosch bill, HB 1177, would allow only a $25 fi ne.

“No one wants to part with a hundred-dollar bill. We used to call them crispies. Nobody wants to part with a crispy.”

Vehle also disagreed with the House provision that the phone can’t be seized by law enforcement. His version would allow the phone to be taken if a warrant was issued.

“It’s not about tickets. It’s not about fines. It’s about a change in culture,” Vehle said. “How do you make a culture shift? You change the law. Then we’ll start seeing the culture change.”

The amended version of SB 179 would become eligible for Senate debate on Friday.

According to Vehle, Wyoming, Minnesota and North Dakota text bans are primary offenses, meaning law enforcement can stop a motorist seen texting; Montana doesn’t have a texting ban; while Nebraska and Iowa bans are secondary offenses.

“South Dakota has been slow to respond to this issue. I’m not sure why,” Rapid City police chief Steve Allender said.

He was one of a line of supporters who testifi ed for the bill during the Senate Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday. No opponents spoke up.

Allender described Vehle’s version as the best texting-ban bill going this session and it’s the one he said he’ll support as long as it remains alive.

“South Dakotans deserve protection from each other,” Allender said.

Vehle said that if his bill passes in the Senate then a decision will need to be reached on whether his bill or the Gosch bill moves forward.

The Gosch bill passed in the House 53-17 on Feb. 12 but hadn’t been assigned to a Senate committee as of Wednesday morning.

The House approval was a major turn in the yearslong debate. Gosch is House speaker who presides over that side of the Legislature. He had been an opponent in the past.

“I’ve compromised a long ways,” Vehle said after the Senate committee endorsed his amended bill 5-1 Wednesday. He is its chairman. “There’s not a whole lot of difference at this point.”