Mitchell to consider its own texting banWidow, texting driver, legislator, city officials vow to continue efforts. A University of South Dakota Government Research Bureau survey showed 92 percent of South Dakotans favor such a restriction.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The frustration was obvious in state Sen. Mike Vehle’s voice.
A proposed ban on texting while driving in South Dakota, which he sponsored this legislative session, was rejected by a House committee Wednesday. Barring a Lazarus-like resurrection, SB 142 will not pass and become law, Vehle conceded Thursday.
“I was very disappointed,” said Vehle, R-Mitchell. “I will say we had a good hearing.”
The Mitchell City Council will now consider joining other South Dakota cities that have banned texting while driving within city limits, according to Mayor Ken Tracy and two councilmen. Cities with bans include Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown and Huron.
The fact that the issue may come before city officials is a surprise to many who thought the Legislature was prepared to pass the ban this year. A University of South Dakota Government Research Bureau survey showed 92 percent of South Dakotans favor such a restriction.
Vehle said 15 or more proponents of the bill came to the House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, and it was endorsed by several people and groups, including the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association and the South Dakota Police Chiefs’ Association. Mitchell Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg, the president of the latter group, testified in favor of the bill.
Justin Iburg, the Mitchell man who was convicted of reckless driving and served jail time for his texting-related role in the death of a neighbor, also testified in support of the bill.
Iburg was reading a text when his pickup slammed into a motorcycle ridden by Jon Christensen on Sept. 20, 2010. Christensen died that night, and since Iburg served his jail sentence, he has given speeches across the region on the dangers of texting and driving.
“To me, it felt like there was a lot of politics involved,” Iburg said. “There were 18 people who testified for (the ban), and not a single person testified against it.”
He said it appeared the legislators had their minds made up before the hearing was held. Iburg said he will continue to support a ban.
“I will definitely come back,” he said.
Janean Christensen, of Brandon, is the widow of Jon Christensen. She also testified for the bill, and its defeat was a stunner.
“My reaction was that I was a little surprised,” she said. “I guess making our roads safer wasn’t something they supported. I was really surprised they did not support this bill.”
Christensen said she will continue to fight for the ban to become state law, but admitted it’s a painful process for her.
“It is tough having to do it every time, and reliving it, but it creates awareness to the public how dangerous texting is,” she said.
The bill had not generated a lot of debate this year, and at Wednesday’s hearing, only representatives who were opposed to the bill spoke against it.
“There were zero opponents,” Vehle said. “Not one opponent testified.”
But the House panel voted 8-5 to reject the bill, which had passed the Senate Transportation Committee that Vehle chairs by a 5-2 vote, and had received 23-9 support in the full Senate.
House Speaker Brian Gosch did not support the bill, Vehle said, and he assigned it to the Judiciary Committee, which Gosch chairs. That is where the effort to outlaw texting while driving in South Dakota died, at least for another year.
“There were a lot of drawn faces,” Vehle said.
He said while he was hopeful, he knew passing the bill this year was not a sure thing.
“You don’t know what will happen when it gets to the floor,” the third-term Republican legislator said.
Vehle said he has not asked any House members to “smoke out” the bill and force a vote before the full House.
“I have not,” he said. “That’s their decision. They have to work with the speaker. That’s for them to decide, because I’m not on that floor.”
A bill making texting and driving by minors a secondary offense — meaning drivers could not be stopped for that alone — was revived in a second House vote Thursday, the day after it was defeated. That bill, SB 106, could still become law, Vehle said. That could be the first step to outlawing texting and driving in the state, he added.
Vehle has supported a ban on texting while driving for the last four sessions and was the chief sponsor this time. He has repeatedly said he wants to help “change the culture” of texting and driving, which will reduce the number of people who do it, in his view.
“You just don’t do it behind the wheel,” Vehle said. “You’re not watching the road.”
It’s like drinking and driving, he said. Until the past 20 or 30 years, many people didn’t take that problem seriously, Vehle noted.
People would drive over a curb after leaving a bar, or tell friends they didn’t remember driving home.
“And we laughed,” he said. “We don’t laugh anymore.”
Tracy proposed the city pass a ban on texting and driving shortly after he took office as mayor in July. The council debated the idea and then decided to wait to see if the Legislature would act.
Tracy said in an email response to questions from The Daily Republic that he has been keeping an eye on the bill in Pierre.
“I think it is too late to put this issue on the agenda for Monday’s council meeting,” he said. “Plus we are not certain at this time if it will be defeated by the Legislature. I previously stated that if the state Legislature fails to pass a ban on texting that I would request that the city of Mitchell consider enacting some form of ordinance to ban texting or distracted driving.”
Tracy said the council “will have that discussion in the near future.”
Council President Jeff Smith noted that the council put the discussion on hold until the Legislature met.
“We also instructed Mayor Tracy to send a letter to our representatives to support such a ban, which I believe they did,” Smith said. “Now that it doesn’t look like the state will take action I am certain the City Council will again bring up the topic.
“It is a shame that within the state we could literally have multiple versions of a texting ban as we travel from county to county and city to city.”
Vehle said that is also a concern for him.
“And I hate to see that,” he said. “You hate to see a patchwork of laws throughout the state.”
The council also discussed prohibiting city employees from texting while driving, and placing other limits on their uses of cellular devices.
Councilman Mel Olson said he favors a “no cell phone” while driving policy for city employees.
“If an employee needs to use a cell phone, they can pull over or pull off the road for a few minutes to take care of the call,” Olson said. ”I could, reluctantly, be persuaded to allow calls on a hands-free device, although that is not my first choice. Certainly, a no-texting policy should be in place for employees at any time they are operating a motor vehicle.”
But he said the city may have to go even further.
“I think, to be enforceable, a complete ban on all electronic devices would have to be the policy for the city for all drivers,” Olson said. “To simply ban texting opens the door to other uses — e.g. selecting music, using GPS, dialing a call, etc. — which could be misinterpreted by an officer observing the driver from a distance, leading to hard feelings, altercations or perhaps worse. I’m not sure we’re ready to ban all electronic devices in vehicles.”
He said such a policy could have a negative impact on the city’s tourism industry.
“I’d hate for Mitchell to get a reputation as being unfriendly to tourists,” Olson said.