Since 2009, it has been illegal in Missouri for anyone under the age of 21 to send a text message from a handheld device while driving.
Under bipartisan legislation approved Monday by the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, the ban would be extended to all drivers.
“It’s past the time we extended that to everyone,” said Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City and sponsor of one of the combined bills in a proposal sent to the Senate floor. “This is a bad habit that everyone is guilty of.”
Razer’s bill was merged with a similar bill proposed by Senator Jason Bean, R-Holcomb. The combined bill would make a first offense a misdemeanor, with up to a $50 fine and two points on the driver’s record. The penalty would increase with subsequent offenses within the two-year period.
Bean said he was guilty of texting while driving and has employed strategies including silencing the ringer to keep his phone from distracting him.
“It’s about time we didn’t do that anymore,” Bean said.
From 2007 to 2020, fewer than 1,000 people died in road traffic accidents in Missouri, a significant decrease from the record 1,257 fatalities recorded in 2005. But in the past two years, fatalities have risen, with 1,016 road deaths in 2021 and 1,048 in 2022, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol statistics.
Precise statistics are not available, but the Missouri Department of Transportation estimates that two-thirds of those killed were not wearing seat belts, and drivers using a cell phone were involved in more than 2,200 crashes in 2021.
To encourage motorists to ignore their phones, MoDOT has been engaging in its “Fasten Seatbelt, Put Your Phone Down” campaign for several years.
Under legislation approved by the committee, the definition of a device is broadened from cell phones to include computers, tablets, and devices that can display or send video signals. Only hands-free use of these devices is permitted, in limited situations.
Along with the messages, drivers would be banned from watching movies or streaming video from on-board devices. And anyone under the age of 18 would be prohibited from using any electronic communication device while driving, even if the use is hands-free.
The bans would not apply to law enforcement agencies and would not apply to devices such as citizens’ bands or shortwave radio transmitters.
Before sending the bill to the entire Senate, the committee added provisions requiring a warrant for an agent to examine the contents of a device and stating that a traffic block for one violation does not establish probable cause for other violations.
The bill would also prevent local governments from enact texting bans that are stricter than state law.
While the MoDOT promotional campaign is a good effort, a law would make many motorists more aware of the danger, Razer said.
The stats it’s seen show that about 7 percent of drivers would obey a law to stop texting, Razer said.
“If it saves a few lives,” Razer said, “it’s worth it.”
This story was originally published in the Missouri Independent.