South Dakota’s broader ban starts July 1 against many uses of electronic devices while driving

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Drivers in South Dakota will soon have to start keeping their eyes on the road much more of the time, rather than looking at their phones and laptops.

That’s because Governor Kristi Noem has signed into law HB 1169.

It prohibits many uses of electronic devices while driving and replaces the weakly-enforced current law against most texting that the Legislature passed in 2014.

Two Sioux Falls Republicans, Representative Doug Barthel and Senator Deb Soholt, led the way to get the new law approved.

They credited a Castlewood couple, Jeff and Lesa Dahl, for convincing them to try again.

The Dahls’ son Jacob died when his car ran into the back of soybean truck. He was taking a photo with his phone.

Jeff Dahl called Barthel to talk about it. Barthel told Dahl they needed to share their painful story with lawmakers.

The couple presented their tale of deep personal loss to House and Senate members at hearings this winter. Some legislators spoke against the bill, but no witnesses formally came forward.

“Jeff and Lesa Dahl’s testimony had a huge impact in committee and there was hardly a dry eye in the room as they spoke. It was very convincing,” Barthel said Saturday.

“When I saw that the governor had signed the bill and it would finally become law, the first person I called was Jeff Dahl. He said it was the best news he’s heard in a long time. Making that phone call made all of this work worth it.”

Barthel and Soholt had tried somewhat similar legislation last year that passed the House but failed on a 17-17 tie in the Senate.

“It was a great effort, but we agreed that we would give it a rest and not bring it back again this year. Then I received a call from Jeff Dahl and he told me the story of how they lost their son Jacob to distracted driving,” Barthel said.

“He (Jeff) had a very powerful story and he convinced me to bring the bill back again this year. I told him that his testimony in committee would be key to getting this bill passed. Senator Soholt agreed to join me again and together we worked to get this across the finish line,” Barthel said.

That’s how Soholt recalled it too.

“Having the Dahls come and share their heartbreaking story made all the difference. The genesis of new policy  should always be because there is a human need, and a way to make things better for South Dakotans,” Soholt said.

She praised the former Sioux Falls police chief for taking up the charge again.

“Honestly Representative Barthel and I did not want to bring this legislation again this year, but then the Dahls called Doug and we just couldn’t walk away from it,” Soholt said.

“We also changed some requirements to assure that phones can be used for routine things that all people need” – such as taking calls but not making them, except in an emergency, and for looking at a map, she said — “which changed some legislative votes to a yes,” Soholt said.

“This bill is about educating our typical law-abiding citizens to exercise more caution with distracted driving,” she continued. “This is a culture-shifting, in that all of us have to work together to protect ourselves and others.”

It was sort of like the battle now under way against the coronavirus COVID-19, according to Soholt.

The new law takes effect July 1. The current law being repealed was a petty offense, with a $100 fine.

But what made it under-effective was law enforcement officers couldn’t stop motorists they saw breaking it, because it was a secondary offense. That meant a separate reason was needed to make the stop.

The Noem administration meanwhile didn’t come out for or against. It was one of the last 15 bills the governor’s office announced Friday evening.

“I don’t want to speak for the governor and can’t say why she didn’t take a public position on the bill,” Barthel said. But he seemed to have an inkling. “I do know that the (state) Department of Public Safety has been very proactive in their media campaign to reduce distracted driving.”

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