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Expanded ban on texting while driving may be on state legislative agenda

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2011 - Some Missouri lawmakers are expressing cautious optimism about the prospects of expanding the state's limited ban on texting while driving -- after a national agency suggested the move for all 50 states. Since early December, several Missouri lawmakers have pre-filed legislation to expand the texting-while-driving ban.

In response to a fatal 2010 traffic accident on Interstate 44 near Gray Summit, Mo., the National Transportation Safety Board last week recommended a ban on texting and cell phone use while driving. Currently, Missouri allows cell phone use in cars and prohibits texting for individuals who are 21 years or younger. (Illinois bans text messaging by all drivers and the use of cell phones while driving in a school zone or in a highway construction zone. Go to the bottom of the story to see a graphic on state laws.)

Investigators concluded that a 19-year-old pickup driver, who had been repeatedly texting, plowed into a tractor trailer and set off a series of collisions involving two school buses.

Since the state's limited texting ban went into effect in 2009, legislative efforts to expand it have failed. In the 2011 legislative session, state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, proposed legislation that would have applied the ban universally; the bill didn't make it out of the Senate.

Start of update: In an interview, McKenna said the NTSB's suggestion to ban all cell phones would likely not take hold in Missouri. He said he's had a hard enough time the last couple of sessions trying to extend the texting ban for everybody.

"I haven't even decided if I'm going to sponsor the bill again this year," McKenna said. "There are just enough senators that have committed to killing the bill."

Still, McKenna doesn't buy the argument that expanding the ban would be a governmental intrusion.

"I completely disagree that it's an intrusion," McKenna said. "Driving is not a right, it's a privilege. The interesting thing about that argument is the people that contend that ought to sponsor bills that do away with drinking and driving laws."

He said that somebody's personal rights "stop when you start to harm other people," adding he has often compared texting and driving to typing a letter with a miniature typewriter.

"People would have thought that was insane; that's exactly what texting and driving is," McKenna said. End of update

This month, though, state Rep. Don Wells, R-Cabool, introduced a bill to bar anyone from sending, reading or writing a text message or electronic message "unless the device is equipped with technology allowing for voice-recognition hands-free texting and is being used in such manner."

And in the Senate, Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, introduced a bill to expand the ban to everyone. According to the bill's summary, it would also would prohibit "anyone from being stopped solely to determine compliance with the text messaging ban."

Sandra Hentges, a spokeswoman for MoDOT, said the agency would "support anything that would help people focus on the road while they're driving." And while that wouldn't include a complete ban cell phones, Hentges said, MoDOT would support expanding the texting-while-driving ban.

"Certainly there's a large number of distractions that people can have in their car -- anything from mobile devices to eating or tuning the radio or applying cosmetics," said Hentges.

While lawmakers say an expansion may get some floor time, they added that opposition in the Senate could make it tough to pass.

"It was something that we thought needed to be debated," said Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. "And as we brought it out, we did find out that ... a lot of people questioned whether we need a law prohibiting texting while driving. Because then you get into the questions of 'well, is that where we stop?' Do you prohibit eating while driving? Do you prohibit several other activities that people tend to indulge in while they're driving?"

Mayer said that he thought the issue "would create a lot of debate." He added that he's "not ruling out that we could come to some resolution on that issue."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, noted the driver who caused the accident in Gray Summit was already breaking the law since was 19 years old. He said people getting behind of the wheel of a moving vehicle are going to have to take "personal responsibility" for its control.

"Anything that takes your eyes off the road is just as debilitating as electronic devices," Stouffer said. "We had a law against texting, and it didn't stop this accident. What we really need is for drivers to take responsibility. Now MoDOT does a really good job of reminding people on their messaging boards not to text and drive. And it still happens. I don't know whether passing another law does anything."

Stouffer added said there might be too much opposition in the Senate for such a measure to pass. Besides, he said, a move to ban all cell phone use could be "totally unenforceable."

"How is the officer going to know if I'm using my Bluetooth and talking to someone on the telephone or I'm singing my favorite song going down the highway?" Stouffer said. "All of this has been integrated in most of the new cars. And so are we going to go out and have people tear that out of their cars? I don't think that's really going to solve the problem. I really think we need for drivers to pay attention and take personal responsibility."

State Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, supports expanding the texting while driving ban. He introduced a separate bill to increase the fine for not wearing a seatbelt. But whether either bill passes, he added, remains to be seen.

"They are going to get more attention," said Keaveny, referring to both seat belts and restrictions on texting. "I also realize that there is -- even nationally -- a feeling in the conservative party that government has gotten too big and too overreaching. Both of these bills will come up for a vote. I think they'll both get out of committee. I'll be interested in the breakdown of the vote."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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