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Hands-free texting while driving bill advancing in Missouri Senate

by Ryan Pivoney | March 14, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
The Missouri Capitol is shown in Jefferson City on May 13, 2022. (Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent)

Missouri transportation leaders are "cautiously optimistic" lawmakers will adopt a ban on texting and driving this year.

With traffic deaths increasing for the past three years, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is pursuing both legislative and behavioral solutions to curb dangerous driving.

Senate Bill 56, sponsored by Sen. Jason Bean, a Holcomb Republican, is the legislative vehicle. The bill was combined with SB 61, sponsored by Sen. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat. The combined legislation is called the "Siddens Bening Hands Free Law" after two victims of distracted driving.

The legislation bans commercial and regular drivers from physically holding devices, making calls, texting, sending emails, searching the internet, watching videos or browsing social media while on Missouri roadways.

The ban applies to cell phones, digital assistants, computers, tablets, video game systems and other electronic devices used for communication or accessing the internet. It does not apply to radios, commercial radios, prescribed medical devices, GPS receivers or other devices affixed to vehicles.

Non-commercial drivers are still permitted to use voice-activated functions of their device, according to the bill. It also carves out specific exemptions for law enforcement and emergency vehicle operators.

If passed, those in violation of the law would be subject to $50-$250 in fines, depending on whether they have prior infractions or used their phone in a construction work zone or school zone. Commercial drivers in violation of the proposed law could lose their CDL license. Violations that result in property damage or serious injury could see the driver charged with a misdemeanor and violations that result in a death would be a felony.

More than 100 people have died on Missouri highways so far this year, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety. It's at least two dozen fewer than the past three years.

But traffic deaths have been steadily increasing since 2019, when there were 881. Last year, the state recorded approximately 1,055 traffic deaths.

Missouri's highest traffic fatality rate was in 2005, when 1,257 people were killed.

As the former chairman of the Highways and Transportation Commission, Robert Brinkmann served on the executive board of the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety.

Brinkmann said highway fatalities so far this year are down 29 percent as of March 1.

"While this is welcome news, we saw last year how quickly things can go south," he said.

Commissioner Gregg Smith said hands-free legislation is the commission's main priority this session. Twenty-five other states already have such laws on the books.

All but two states, Missouri and Montana, ban texting while driving for all motorists. Missouri only bans those 21 years old or younger from texting while driving.

In committee, SB 56 received numerous testimony supporting the bill and none in opposition. The Missouri Trucking Association, Department of Transportation, State Medical Association, Chamber of Commerce and Fraternal Order of Police voiced their support for the bill.

The Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee passed the bill 6-0, sending it to the Senate floor for perfection. It's currently among the 30 bills ready for the Senate to debate and pass.

SB 56 marks only the second time a hands-free bill has made it out of a Senate committee, Smith said.

"The commission and MoDOT staff remain cautiously optimistic for the passage of this proposal this session," he said. "States that have enacted a hands-free law have experienced an average decrease in the fatality rate of 15 percent within two years."

With half the session over, Brinkmann said the Coalition for Roadway Safety is hopeful the bill gets discussion and is also supported by the House.

In his legislative report to the rest of the commission, however, Smith said a majority of attention paid to transportation issues this session has been concentrated on stripping MoDOT of its constitutional authority over the State Road Fund.

"The commission has and will continue to raise concerns with key leaders in the Capitol as to the intent of this legislative matter," he said.

Brinkmann said promoting safe driving habits becomes more critical as people begin traveling more in the spring.

Recognizing Missouri had weak traffic safety laws, MoDOT created the Buckle Up, Phone Down campaign in 2017 and began focusing on a behavioral approach to traffic safety. The campaign targets businesses, individuals, schools and more.

Now, it's gaining national attention, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.

North Dakota recently picked up the campaign and it was recognized by the United States Department of Transportation as it looks to enhance its national roadway safety campaign. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is actively studying how effective the campaign is on changing behavior, McKenna said.

He said he's expecting results within the next six to eight months. If the Buckle Up, Phone Down campaign is picked up by the U.S. Department of Transportation, McKenna said it would be federally funded through highway safety improvement dollars distributed to each state.

"Some of that campaign message would spread throughout the country," he said. "It's something we've been working on diligently since its inception, but it is really gratifying to see it being adopted by other states and at the national level."

Print Headline: Hands-free driving bill advancing in Senate


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