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Mitchell leaders: Texting bill too weak

The South Dakota Legislature is moving closer to a statewide texting-while-driving ban, but officials in Mitchell think the legislation is too weak.

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State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who has long championed a statewide texting ban, said the legislation that passed the House is "a step in the right direction" but said it's a weak bill overall.

Mitchell Mayor Ken Tracy called the bill "feeble" but acknowledged that for now, a ban on texting while driving that has a $25 fine and is a secondary offense might be the best the Legislature can do.

"A little is better than nothing, I guess," Tracy said.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee and the House of Representatives approved the texting-while-driving ban proposed by House Speaker and Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City. The bill is now headed to the Senate.

Vehle, who has his own Senate version of a texting ban, said it's a start.

"Texting while driving bans have died in that committee for several years," Vehle told The Daily Republic earlier this week. "Although it is a very weak ban, at least we turn the corner on getting a bill out of the committee unanimously."

The committee rejected an amendment that would have allowed cities to enact texting bans as a primary offense. A primary offense is one for which a suspect can be stopped; a secondary offense can only be enforced when noticed by an officer during a stop for a primary offense.

Vehle said the bill is much weaker than what he has proposed, mainly because it prohibits city and county officers from levying their own penalties. He said the $25 fine in the bill is too light and should be $100. The city of Mitchell's fine for texting while driving -- the city passed its own ban last year -- is $125.

"What I don't like is that it takes away local control, which I think you really need to have when it comes to distracted driving. I think it should come down to the local authorities," Vehle said. "You put in a baseline for a secondary offense for the whole state and if the local community wants to make it a primary offense, they can."

Seven of the state's largest cities -- Mitchell, Aberdeen, Brookings, Huron, Sioux Falls, Vermillion and Watertown -- already have texting bans in place, as does Pennington County.

Mitchell's mayor likes his city's ban.

"We really would like to keep what we have now," Tracy said. "And we'd rather not have something on the books that's weaker than what we have now."

Mitchell Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg, who is also president of the South Dakota Police Chiefs Association, said texting should be a primary offense. He also said the phrase "distracted driving," which is in the bill's title, can mean a lot of things, and lawmakers should be careful in how the law is written. The bill currently says officers cannot seize an electronic wireless communication device from offenders; Overweg would like to allow for seizure if a crash or fatal accident occurs.

"We're getting close, and that's important," Overweg said of a ban. "This is the closest we've ever been to passing a statewide texting-while-driving ban."