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House panel wants ban enforced against texting while at the wheel

Rep. Spencer Hawley waited for the committee vote Wednesday morning. (Photo courtesy of Bob Mercer)

PIERRE — Law enforcement officers should be able to stop drivers seen texting while on South Dakota's streets and roads, a panel of the Legislature decided Wednesday.

Rep. Spencer Hawley wants the state's texting ban changed to a primary offense so police, deputies, sheriffs and patrol officers can better enforce it.

Texting while driving currently is a secondary offense. That means a law enforcement officer has to pull over a motorist for some other reason.

"I think it's time we take that step up," Hawley, the House Democratic leader from Brookings, said. He runs an insurance agency.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-2 to endorse HB 1230. The House of Representatives will debate it either Thursday afternoon or Monday.

If the change wins approval from the House, next stop would be the Senate.

A violation now is a petty offense with a $100 penalty. It would become a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The committee voted 8-5 to reject Hawley's other proposal, HB 1229. It sought to make a primary offense of a violation of the state's seat belt law for people in the front seat.

South Dakota is one of four states where the texting ban isn't primary enforcement, Hawley told the panel. Seven others testified as supporters. No one went to the microphone as an opponent.

Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, explained he would vote against the change. He said increasing the punishment wouldn't stop behaviors some witnesses described.

"I just can't support the bill," Kaiser, an Aberdeen police officer, said.

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