Texting while driving is about to become illegal in South Dakota.
In an unexpected move just two days after talks collapsed in failure, the South Dakota Legislature resoundingly approved a compromise texting ban Thursday. It now heads to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who supports the concept, for a signature or veto.
Under the deal, texting while driving would be illegal across the state, with a $100 penalty. Police wouldn’t be able to pull drivers over just for texting, but cities such as Sioux Falls with tougher bans will be allowed to keep them. Police won’t be allowed to seize someone’s cell phone to prove they were texting without going through the normal search and seizure procedures.
"We finally did what we didn’t think would happen this year," said Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, one of the lawmakers who negotiated the deal. "I’m just tickled pink."
The compromise resembles an offer made earlier this session by Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who has been the lead champion of a statewide texting ban. A House committee killed Vehle’s proposal, but on Thursday it passed both the House and Senate with support from more than two-thirds of the members.
The difference? Public pressure.
"There was an enormous amount of pressure from home, and from people who talked in the last crackerbarrels, (saying) ‘Why aren’t you doing something about texting?’" said Hoffman. "People in this House and Senate didn’t want to go back on their campaign and have to be badgered with, ‘Why aren’t you doing your job?’
Vehle said he’d prefer a stronger ban that allows police to pull people over for texting. But he’s willing to accept a weaker ban as long as it allows stronger bans put in place by local governments to stand. Police in Sioux Falls, Mitchell and other cities are allowed to pull over texting drivers, and will retain that power under the compromise measure.
"If I was a benevolent dictator, I’d have a different bill," Vehle said. "But at this point I want something that is statewide, and they’ve done that… You’ve got to have something that’s possible."
Throughout this session, Vehle has butted heads with House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, over the texting issue. Gosch opposes allowing police to pull over texters, and wanted to override local bans that allow that.
Thursday morning, hours before a conference committee met to discuss the ban, Gosch agreed to let local bans stand, Hoffman said.
"I was very concerned that Speaker Gosch was not going to allow us to take out (the override of local bans), and that’s the big sticking point," Hoffman said. "Once we got Speaker Gosch on board with us this morning, I knew this was going to take off."
Gosch said the appointment of new lawmakers helped make the difference after he and Vehle couldn’t agree. He endorsed the compromise despite differences from his preferred measure.
"There will still be people who want it to be stricter, and there are some people who think it’s too strict," Gosch said. "It’s a compromise."
Hoffman said he and Rep. Steve Westra, R-Sioux Falls, lobbied Gosch heavily to agree to a compromise.
Steve Allender, the Rapid City police chief who has aggressively pushed for a texting ban, said he’s disappointed the ban won’t allow police to pull over texters around the state.
"This bill, while better than nothing, probably, does not provide the enforcement tool necessary to be a complete success," Allender said.
Rep. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, called the measure “a true compromise between all of the (texting ban) bills that have been out there this year.”
"If it’s not perfect, we can come back and we can look at it again," Heinert said.
Sen. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, credited Vehle’s four-year battle to pass a texting ban.
"He’s tried and failed many times to get a bill through both chambers," Curd said, provoking spontaneous applause from the audience. "Without his perseverance and dedication to this issue… I don’t think we’d be able to sit here today."