Barthel’s broader ban on electronic devices clears first test in South Dakota Legislature

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Texting and Driving

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Emotional testimony from parents whose son died after running into the back of a truck helped make the argument Thursday that South Dakota needs a stronger ban against texting while driving.

The state House Transportation Committee voted 10-1 to recommend HB 1169 sponsored by Representative Doug Barthel, a Sioux Falls Republican who is a past police chief for the city.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for debate, possibly as early as Wednesday afternoon.

It would ban most uses of electronic devices while driving, increase the penalty to a class-two misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, and make a violation a primary offense.

South Dakota’s texting ban now is a petty offense, the lowest crime possible, with a $100 fine. More significantly, it is a secondary offense, meaning a law enforcement officer needs a separate reason to pull over the vehicle.

No one spoke against the bill Thursday. The only “no” on the roll call came from Representative Steve Livermont, a Martin Republican, who had asked Barthel about the change to a primary offense.

Barthel brought a similar bill last year that the House passed 40-30 but deadlocked in the Senate 17-17.

Testifying for the latest version Thursday were lobbyists for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, Sanford Health, South Dakota State Medical Association, both chapters of the Associated General Contractors of South Dakota, South Dakota Auto Dealers, South Dakota Truckers Association, Joint Fire Council, South Dakota Insurance Alliance, Avera Health, State Farm Insurance, South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, South Dakota Municipal League and South Dakota Police Chiefs Association.

“This isn’t about personal freedom. This is about saving lives of others on the road,” Doug Abraham, representing the property casualty group, said. 

The last to speak for the bill were Jeff and Lesa Dahl from Castlewood. They lost their son, Jacob, a Northern State student, in a crash October 23, 2014, on U.S. 12 near Andover, when he drove into the rear of a truck hauling soybeans.

His dad showed the committee the phone the son was using to take a picture when he died. The lawmakers also were shown the Castlewood football jersey that’s since been retired and a photo of Jacob from his Army Reserve boot camp graduation.

Lesa rubbed Jeff’s back as he struggled through. Jeff recalled seeing law enforcement come with the minister to their house that Thursday — “I just knew it right away,” he said — and showed the legislators the folded U.S. flag the local American Legion post had presented to them.

“And I cry every single day since then,” said Jeff, who works as a janitor in Watertown. Lesa, a teacher the past 38 years, leaned in and said post-traumatic syndrome disorder was now a “huge” issue for them.

Representative Bob Mills, a Volga Republican who chairs the committee, told them, “We’re saddened for your loss, but your son was someone special.” Another legislator in the audience, Representative Nancy York, a Watertown Republican, gave each of them a hug.

 Representative Tim Goodwin, a Rapid City Republican, questioned whether the bill went far enough. Goodwin read aloud several exceptions, such as reading and entering phone numbers while going down the road. “That’s still pretty distractive, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Barthel replied. But, Barthel continued, South Dakota doesn’t seem ready, politically, to accept a stricter ban. Barthel said he also didn’t want to stir opposition among people who run small businesses and need to answer calls while on the road.

Barthel said he wouldn’t consider trying a stronger ban in the future if his bill passes this year. Asked how the legislation would work in practice, Barthel said an officer would have probable cause to make a stop if a driver seemed to be looking at the phone longer than would seem to be needed to put in a number.

Barthel used the example of a person following the speed limit on I-90 even though no patrol car was to be seen the entire way between Sioux Falls and Pierre.

“The goal is voluntary compliance,” Barthel said.

Representative Manny Steele, a Sioux Falls Republican, called for the committee to back the bill.

“What we’re doing is taking a major step. We’re leaving the flexibility to the officer, which he should have,” Steele said, adding that distracted driving affects the driver and all others in the path.  

Representative Roger Chase, a Huron Republican, complimented the Dahls. “We feel your pain. Great testimony,” Chase said, adding it was “impactful” to be shown the phone.  

Mills told Barthel: “Last year’s effort was not lost.”

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