A ban on texting while driving that seven South Dakota towns, including Vermillion, have passed is imperiled by a bill in the Legislature. South Dakota House members on Wednesday discussed House Bill 1177, which would replace the local bans that cities have in place with a statewide ban.

But there could be less teeth in the state ban, because texting while driving would be a secondary offense, in which police can only give tickets for unlawful texting if they were initially pulled over for other other offenses.

While texting while driving would be illegal in all of South Dakota if the bill is signed into law, that would mean a watered-down ban, Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said during the House discussions.

House Speaker Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, is leading the texting ban measure. Gosch said a ban carrying a small penalty, coupled with extensive state advertising about the dangers of distracted driving, could make South Dakota's highways safer.

Back before the few towns began implementing texting bans, it was a Vermillion lawmaker who sought to add a statewide measure. In January 2009, state Rep. Eldon Nygaard, D-Vermillion, introduced a bill to make it illegal to operate a vehicle while composing, reading or sending an electronic message.

"It's a terrible practice," Nygaard said at the time. "It's life threatening."

Such a statewide ban hasn't passed. The Vermillion City Council in April 2013 unanimously passed an ordinance putting the texting ban in place, with a fine of $114.

In making his affirmative vote, council member Steve Ward said city officials needed to move on the issue because of the South Dakota Legislature inaction. The Volante newspaper shared Ward's quote: "The dangers of texting while driving has become more and more evident, this just seemed like something that needed to be done.”

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