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South Dakota Legislature passes texting and driving ban

Drivers in South Dakota will now be cited tickets for texting and driving after the State Legislature passed a bill making it a secondary offense.

After weeks of negotiation, Senate Bill 142, banning texting while driving in the state,  passed March 14 with a 52-18 vote in the House and a 28-7 vote in the Senate. The statute makes texting and driving a secondary offense, resulting in a $100 fine.

Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen said he commends lawmakers for “a step in the right direction.”

“I certainly commend them for allowing those communities to enact additional enforcement measures,” Betzen said.

Betzen said he is pleased with the ban because it allows cities who have passed stricter texting and driving laws — such as Aberdeen, Brookings and Sioux Falls — to keep them in place. In these cities, texting and driving is a primary offense meaning an officer can pull over the driver purely for texting and driving.

As a secondary offense, the officer has to pull the driver over for another traffic violation before they can cite them with a ticket for texting and driving. A seat belt violation is also a secondary offense.

First-year Megan Jamison said she was not previously aware of Vermillion’s texting and driving law.

“Vermillion’s texting and driving ban is not a concern for me because I don’t have my car here,” Jamison said.

However, Jamison said she is more aware of her hometown, Sioux Falls’, texting and driving statute.

“I guess I just assumed that all of South Dakota had the same texting and driving law,” she said.

Vermillion enacted a texting and driving law as a secondary offense before the State Legislature made the ban statewide in July 2013. Betzen said the ban “is a difficult law to enforce.”

He said the Vermillion Police Department has given approximately 10 texting and driving tickets in three months.

Betzen attributes this low ticket number to the amount of resources needed to elicit a texting and driving violations.

“An officer  in an unmarked vehicle will sit at a busier intersection, and if he or she sees a person texting and driving they will call another officer in a marked police vehicle,” he said.

The marked police vehicle then has to observe the driver commit another traffic violation before they can pull the driver  over. This law  does not allow police officers to seize a person’s phone that is accused of texting and driving to prove this offense without going through search-and-seizure procedures.

An earlier ban proposed by Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, was previously killed in the House because of its stricter provisions. The  provisions in the former bill would have allowed police officers to pull a driver over for texting. However, Vehle is pleased with the weaker bill because he said it demonstrates progress.

“Several cities have been waiting for the legislature to do something (about texting and driving),” Vehle said.

Vehle said because the State Legislature has formerly failed to act on texting and driving many cities made bans on their own. This issue of local control was exactly what Vehle said he wanted to steer away from.

“On one side of the horse there is a saddle bag that says, ‘Yes, we want local control’. On the other side of the horse there is a saddle bag that says, “No, we do not want local control,” Vehle said. “Ultimately, we are not talking about local control. We are talking about texting and driving.”

In addition to the texting and driving ban, South Dakota State Legislators voted to increase pay of South Dakota teachers by $230 a year.

This $2.2 billion spending plan to increase teacher pay was voted on unanimously in the Senate and won with a 59-10 vote in the House.

Sophomore Amelia Howard said she is pleased with the bill.

“It’s great that (South Dakota State Legislators) recognize they need to start paying teachers more,” Howard said. “I believe last year was the first year that more teachers were leaving South Dakota than staying in South Dakota.”

Despite this pay increase, about 10,000 South Dakotan teachers will still be ranked 50th out of 50 on the teacher pay scale. Between 49th ranked Mississippi and 50th ranked South Dakota there is still more than a $2,000 pay gap according to the ‘Washington Post.’

South Dakota has been one of the lowest paying states for teacher’s salaries since at least 1970, the National Center for Education Statistics reports.

Sophomore Tyler Hull is majoring in education and is not impressed by the pay increase because of teaching strains in the state.

“I think it’s crummy that South Dakota is last in teacher’s salaries,” Hull said. “South Dakota is a tough place to teach — there’s little population (in rural areas) and several reservations that need good teachers.”

Although Hull does not plan to stay in South Dakota to teach after graduation, he would not attribute this aspiration to South Dakota’s low teachers’ salaries. Hull said the benefits of teaching outweigh the financial gains.

“If you’re a teacher, you’re not in it for the money,” Hull said.