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Police can now fine Missouri drivers caught using cellphones and breaking traffic laws

Cars drive east on Interstate 64 on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Under a law that takes effect today, Missouri drivers who are using an electronic device when they commit another traffic violation could be fined.

Missouri drivers could be fined if they break traffic laws while using a cellphone, under a law that takes effect Monday.

The Siddens Bening Hands-Free Law is intended to limit distracted driving, which could help reduce the number of road fatalities. The law allows police to ticket drivers who use an electronic device while committing a traffic offense such as speeding, crossing in-and-out of lanes or running a red light.

“You can have your phone on you, you can send a message so long as you're not breaking any other law,” said the bill’s sponsor, said state Sen. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles. “If you do, and a cop sees you on your phone, too, that's when they can step in.”

Schroer wants people to think about using a hands-free device before picking up a cellphone while driving, so they will not get ticketed or cause an accident.

He said the law prohibits police from pulling over people just for sending a quick text message while at a red light, looking at a navigation app while driving or using rideshare apps while driving without violating any traffic laws. Schroer said state lawmakers made it clear that they did not want police to be able to initiate a stop just because they saw a driver using an electronic device while driving.

According to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, from 2017 to 2021 there were 80 fatalities involving a distracted driver in the St. Louis area.

St. Louisans will benefit the most by this law, because the area is not safe for pedestrians or cyclists, said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation.

Hugh’s traffic safety organization has been working with state lawmakers for years to craft a bill to curb distracted driving. Vehicles have improved over the years with automatic braking and better airbags, but Hugh said in the past 10 years it is becoming more dangerous for people who walk or bicycle because of people using their cellphones while driving.

“Anything we can do to help keep drivers' attention on the road, where it belongs, when you're driving is going to help improve that safety,” Hugh said.

Police can issue warnings until Jan. 1, 2025. After the warning period, a driver who commits a first violation within 24 months could be fined $100. A second offense during that period carries a $250 fine and a third $500. Drivers who are pulled over for distracted driving in a work or school zone face a $500 fine.

“The nice thing about the law is it starts out with kind of a grace period, everybody knows it's the law, but they're not going to give you a big fine or throw you in jail,” Hugh said. “It's like a period for us to figure that out, ‘What am I going to do with my phone now besides just hold it while I'm driving?’”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.