PIERRE – On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee embraced stiffer penalties for texting while driving but balked at applying the same standard to seat belt use.
Currently under South Dakota law, texting while driving and failure to wear a seat belt are secondary offenses. A driver must be stopped for a different infraction before being charged under the texting or seat belt statutes. HB1230 and HB1229 make both a primary offense and raise the penalty to a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Rep. Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings, said South Dakota is one of four states that doesn’t list texting while driving as a primary offense.
“This is a growing, growing problem,” Hawley said.
The bill has the backing of the South Dakota EMS Association.
“We’re hoping it would put us out of business,” said Maynard Konechne, representing the emergency medical specialists.
Raising the penalty won’t stop drivers from texting, according to Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen.
“It’s just a matter of, people are going to do it,” Kaiser said.
Rep. Doug Barthel, R-Sioux Falls, said making texting while driving a primary offense would encourage compliance.
“There are many laws on the books we follow, frankly, because we know they’re there,” Barthel said.
The texting bill was approved on an 11-2 vote and now goes to the full House.
A similar bill making seat belt violations a primary offense did not have the same success.
Introducing the bill, Hawley said that seat belt use is at 50 percent in South Dakota.
“We’re having less effect,” Hawley said.
Changing the seat belt violation to a primary offense is needed, according to Dick Tieszen, representing State Farm Insurance.
“If somebody’s checking, we all comply,” Tieszen said.
Car accidents have an effect on insurance premiums.
“Premiums are based on all losses,” said Doug Abraham, a lobbyist representing the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “It affects everyone who pays a premium.”
Opposing the bill was Flandreau attorney Bob Pesall.
“There is no evidence that these laws are reducing fatalities,” Pesall said of changing the seat belt law to a primary offense.
Pesall also said he doubted that law enforcement was clamoring for the bill.
“None of them are asking for a law like this to be put in place,” Pesall said.
Larry Nielsen of Tulare said the law wasn’t needed because the highways are getting safer as the number of fatalities have been going down.
“The only safe crash is one that does not happen,” Nielsen said. He also asked the legislators, “Is it the government’s role to be my guardian or keeper?”
A do pass motion failed on a 6-7 vote. A motion to move the bill to the 41st legislative day, effectively killing the legislation, was approved on an 8-5 vote.