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Missouri spent years rejecting distracted driving laws. That could change in 2023

Cars drive west on Interstate 64 on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Under Missouri law, motorists over 21 aren't restricted in their use of cellphones while driving.

Missouri is one of just two states without a law against distracted driving for all motorists — but that could soon change. State law currently prohibits only those under 21 from sending a text message from a hand-held device while driving, but earlier this week a Senate transportation committee approved bipartisan legislation that could expand that ban to all drivers.

For years, advocates and lawmakers in Missouri have pushed for such a law only to see multiple bills die in committee.

Dozens of states have already passed their own distracted driving laws. Reporter Eric Berger, who recently investigated the issue of distracted driving laws for Kaiser Health News, notes that states have taken different approaches to their bans.

“There's a spectrum of distracted driving laws in terms of how broad they are,” Berger said on Friday's St. Louis on the Air. “There are 24 states that have passed laws which prohibit drivers from even holding their cellphones. And then there are some which only ban texting, or that ban texting and holding a cellphone when in a school or work zone.”

Missouri, however, hasn’t budged on its own distracted driving law. Former Missouri state Rep. Jeff Porter said that his party’s leadership has historically balked at supporting a ban on distracted driving.

For Republican opponents of such a law, he said, “the biggest thing is government overreach.” During his two terms in the legislature, Porter attempted three times to pass a bill expanding the state’s existing distracted driving law. All failed.

Porter pointed to the widespread support for such a law — from the insurance industry, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the National Highway Safety Administration. During his time in the legislature, he met with the families of victims of distracted drivers.

“Their lives have been changed forever,” he said, adding that “they've lost, in most cases, the main breadwinner of that family.”

Porter also said that he’s encouraged by a bipartisan bill that was approved in the state Senate committee on Monday. Under the proposal, the state’s existing ban would be expanded to cover all drivers. A first offense would come with a fine of up to $50 and add two points to the driver’s record.

The law is similar to those that Porter attempted to pass while he was a legislator — but he’s hopeful for a different outcome for this bill in 2023.

Distracted driving is a problem for everyone, Porter emphasized.

“You're going to have more wrecks in more highly populated areas,” he noted, “but you still have deaths and casualties and injuries throughout every county in this state.”

To hear more from reporter Eric Berger and former state lawmaker Jeff Porter, including a discussion of the way different states have approached their bans, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Eric Berger and Jeff Porter on "St. Louis on the Air"

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org. 

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."