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Public Officials On Zoom While Driving Shows ‘The Extreme Of The Problem,’ Advocate Says

Pedestrian deaths nearly doubled in St. Louis in 2020, prompting new attention to the need for safer streets.
Jodi Green
Pedestrian deaths nearly doubled in St. Louis in 2020, prompting new attention to the need for safer streets.

An Ohio state senatorwent viral last week after he was caught on camera driving during a Zoom debate on penalties for — you guessed it — distracted driving. But Andrew Brenner is hardly an outlier: Numerous elected officials, including St. Louis aldermen, have been spotted driving while participating in virtual public meetings.

St. Louis resident Patrick Van Der Tuin, who is passionate about bike and pedestrian safety, isn’t happy about that.

“We noticed this happening when all of the [aldermanic] meetings started going online last year with COVID protections in place … and it just kind of kept going and kept going,” Van Der Tuin, the executive director of the local bicycle-focused nonprofit St. Louis BWorks, told St. Louis on the Air. “We brought it to the attention of a handful of different people, [like] ‘Hey, can we have this addressed,’ and it continues on to this day.”

He said he’s reached out a couple times to Aldermanic President Lewis Reed without response. (Reed also did not return several messages seeking comment.)

Van Der Tuin said his concerns aren’t only about distracted driving. He expressed frustration about the lack of focus on public business by some participants.

“They’re not discussing light issues,” he said. “We’ve got a new administration in St. Louis city, and we’ve got a lot of major problems that are being tackled. And it’s really important that we have the full devotion of these individuals to the meeting. That’s just not happening when you’re trying to operate a vehicle and you’re trying to discuss, you know, the pension of the fire department or the annual budget for the entire city of St. Louis.”

How Zooming While Driving Makes Roadways — And Meetings — Worse
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with St. Louis resident Patrick Van Der Tuin and with callers who add their perspectives on the issue.

But as Van Der Tuin detailed in conversation with host Sarah Fenske on Friday’s show, the biggest reason he finds this trend so concerning is because of how it puts people at risk along area roadways.

“It just [speaks] to the level of distracted driving that we’re seeing out on the streets, is the main thing,” he said. “Missouri is one of two states that still does not have any basic laws around using these mobile devices while operating a two- or three-ton vehicle while [driving] through a residential neighborhood. … It’s basically showing you the extreme of the problem.”

An Illinois Department of Transportation highway maintenance worker named Cedric called into the show to share his perspective.

“Throughout the day we’ll set up traffic control or be out here repairing the roads to make them safer for the motoring public, and you’ll constantly see people just drive by in our workzone, hit all our cones,” Cedric said. “And sometimes they won’t even look up from their phones.”

He said his girlfriend regularly prays for him to make it home safely from his job.

“Please just pull over,” Cedric pleaded with drivers. “Even if you didn’t even care, if you weren’t even benevolent or altruistically wanting to care for our safety, at least just think about it [for yourself], that you’re going to get in an accident. You might hit something, you’re going to have to pay your deductible. Just for your own safety, just pull over and pay attention to what’s going on in front of you.”

On Twitter, St. Louis on the Air polled listeners about the issue.

Van Der Tuin said he’d like to see state lawmakers address the issues of texting while driving, at minimum.

“We’re operating vehicles that are getting larger and larger and larger, getting heavier and heavier and heavier, and we need to understand the consequences behind those,” Van Der Tuin said. “If you look at Europe and you look at other places, they are very strict on the operating of those vehicles. If you hit a pedestrian, there’s some pretty strict fines put in place. And Missouri definitely does not have any of those in place.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.