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Issue on the agendas: Drivers on their phones

The State: Issue on the agendas: Drivers on their phones

By JOHN MONK - jmonk@thestate.com

The controversy over use of cell phones while driving is in the spotlight in Columbia today, in court and in the Legislature.

At the Matthew Perry federal courthouse, a wrongful death trial for up to $55 million in insurance is set to begin in the case of Sharon King, whose vehicle struck and killed bicyclists Thomas Hoskins and Lee Anne Barry in 2007.

King allegedly was on her cell phone when her car hit the two riders, and Hoskins’ lawyers say they seek a big verdict to send a message about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. Barry’s estate settled her case for $2.5 million in a state court.

In the afternoon, a key House subcommittee, meeting at the State House complex, will hold the first major hearing this year on a bill to ban texting by cell phones and use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Under the proposal, drivers convicted of a violation would face a maximum $100 fine. Officials said they may consider an amendment to make texting while driving a two-point traffic violation, which would cause an offender’s insurance cost to go up.

Possible hearing witnesses include driving safety advocate Tom Crosby of AAA of the Carolinas and officials from the S.C. Trucking Association, who want to ban texting while driving.

"Honk if you love Jesus ... text while driving if you’d like to meet him," reads a caption of a cartoon distributed recently by the S.C. Trucking Association.

"I’m really going to be watching the results of the hearing, and I’m cautiously hopeful that something will happen this year," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who, in the past, has introduced a bill restricting cell phone use while driving that has yet to get a hearing.

Unlike Jackson’s bill in the Senate, the House bill has the backing of powerful members, including House Judiciary chairman Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland; House Education and Public Works Committee chairman Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens; and bill sponsor Rep. Don Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the transportation subcommittee.

Moreover, in recent weeks, national stories have been published about the dangers of cell phone use while driving.

Numerous states have banned, or are moving to ban, texting while driving. A smaller number of states have outlawed use of a hand-held cell phones while driving.

Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced his agency is banning texting by drivers of interstate trucks, buses and vans. A commercial truck or bus driven by a distracted texting driver is "a lethal weapon," LaHood said.

Congress also is considering legislation that would put a nationwide ban on texting and cell phone use while driving. States that didn’t enact such bans might lose federal highway funds.

Hoskins and Barry were on a bicycle ride promoting awareness of traumatic brain injuries and bike safety when they were killed on a Lancaster County highway.