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Missouri Senate committee advances bill to ban texting while driving

NPR illustration of texting.
Ryan Johnson

Since 2009, it has been illegal in Missouri for anyone under 21 to send a text message from a hand-held device while driving.

Under bipartisan legislation approved Monday in the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, the ban would be expanded to cover all drivers.

“It has been past time to extend it to everyone,” said Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City and sponsor of one of the bills combined into a proposal sent to the Senate floor. “This is a bad habit everyone has been guilty of.”

Razer’s bill was joined to a similar bill proposed by Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb. The combined bill would make a first offense an infraction, with a fine of up to $50, and two points on the driver’s record. The penalty would increase with subsequent offenses within a two-year period.

Bean said he’s been guilty of sending messages while driving and has employed strategies that include silencing the ringer to keep his phone from distracting him.

“It is time we don’t do that anymore,” Bean said.

From 2007 through 2020, fewer than 1,000 people died in traffic crashes in Missouri, a significant decrease from the record 1,257 fatalities recorded in 2005. But over the past two years, fatalities have been on the rise, with 1,016 road deaths in 2021 and 1,048 in 2022, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol statistics.

Precise statistics aren’t available, but the Missouri Department of Transportation estimates that two-thirds of those killed were not wearing seat belts and that drivers using a cellphone were involved in more than 2,200 crashes in 2021.

To encourage motorists to ignore their phones, MoDOT has for several years engaged in its “Buckle Up, Phone Down” campaign.

Under the legislation approved by the committee, the definition of a device is expanded from cell phones to include computers, tablets and devices capable of displaying or sending video signals. Only hands-free use of those devices, in limited situations, is permitted.

Along with texts, drivers would be barred from watching movies or streaming video from in-car devices. And anyone under 18 would be banned from using any electronic communication device at all while driving, even if the use is hands-free.

The bans would not apply to law enforcement and would not be applied to devices like citizens’ band or short-wave radio transmitters.

Before sending the bill to the full Senate, the committee added provisions requiring a warrant for an officer to review the contents of a device and stating that a traffic stop for a violation does not establish probable cause for other violations.

The bill also would block local governments from enacting texting bans that are stricter than state law.

While the MoDOT promotional campaign is a good effort, a law would make many motorists more aware of the danger, Razer said.

Statistics he’s seen show an estimated 7% of drivers would obey a law to stop texting, Razer said.

“If that saves a few lives,” Razer said, “that is worth it.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.