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With Mo. legislation comes new question for drivers: Old enough to text?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2009 - At the end of its session last week, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that prohibits under most circumstances anyone 21 or younger from sending or reading text messages while driving on the highway.

Since then, much of the debate has focused on whether the ban would be enforceable and where you draw the line trying to prevent people from using potentially dangerous technology in their cars. Then there’s the question of whether the legislation is ageist.

Its sponsor in the Missouri Senate thinks so.

“It’s odd state public policy to say if you’re 22 or older it’s a good idea to text while driving,” says Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City. “That goes against the whole reason why I sponsored it in the first place.”

(A bill to ban texting by people of any age while driving is hung up in the Illinois Senate.)

McKenna drafted the legislation to cover all drivers in Missouri. He later suggested setting the age ceiling at 24 as a compromise, citing several studies that show that of any age group, young people are most likely to text while driving. One such study, from Nationwide Insurance, found that nearly 40 percent of people under 30 who own cell phones admit to texting while behind the wheel.

In the end, after balking at a proposal to drop the age limit to 18, McKenna settled for another compromise. So now the provision bans people 21 and under from texting while driving, unless they are doing things like trying to report illegal activity or seeking emergency help. If pulled over for texting in the car, young drivers could be ticketed with a moving violation.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who supports the idea of drivers typing on their phones during a ride on the interstate. But in the absence of data on how many accidents are actually caused by texting, some question the idea of putting an age on this type of safety legislation. The Nationwide survey found that only 3 percent of respondents said that the increase in people driving while distracted solely rests on the shoulders of inexperienced or young drivers. As McKenna points out, several recent crashes that made national headlines involved drivers over the age of 30.

Keaton Hanson, an avid cyclist who says he sees far too many drivers tapping on their cell phones, supports the idea of an all-out ban on texting while driving. “This [bill] is a step in the right direction, but the compromise is just putting off the inevitable,” says Hanson, a college student. “I don’t know why people under 21 would be more distracted than adults.”

Keneisha Malone, a senior at Hazelwood East High School, agrees that texting while driving should be against the law for everyone. (She says she's guilty of doing it but only at stoplights and stop signs.) “I don’t think there should be an age limit,” she says.

Texting is one of the many ways that drivers are distracted these days, says Jerry Collet, owner of A Better Way Driving School. He says parents are setting a bad example for ;their children by multitasking in the car. 

But Kelsey Risman, a student at Webster University, doesn't support any ban on texting while behind the wheel. "Yes, [driving while texting] is dangerous, but when you get on the road you're making a personal choice to trust the people around you. You know the dangers, and it's an individual's own responsibility -- not the government's -- to make the road safer for everyone."

A dozen states now have some type of legislation that specifically bans text messaging for all drivers, says Anne Teigen, a policy associate with the National Conference on State Legislatures. Some have laws that ban texting by young drivers with a learner’s permits or an intermediate driver’s license.

McKenna says he plans to push for an all-out ban next year.

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