Missouri Senators Debate Government Role in Road Safety

By Adam Aton | February 12, 2016

Bills governing seat belt use, texting while driving and helmet requirements for motorcyclists prompted debate in a Missouri Senate committee over whether the government should play a larger role in road safety.

Two bills — one sponsored by Republican Sen. David Pearce, the other by Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp — would ban texting while driving, which currently is forbidden for only commercial drivers and people younger than 22.

Another proposal by Schupp would require everyone in a car to wear a seat belt, including adults in the backseat, who are currently exempt from seat belt requirements. It would also allow police to stop drivers solely for suspicion of not wearing a seat belt.

And legislation from Democratic Sen. Jason Holsman would allow motorcycle riders who are at least 21 and have health insurance to ride without a helmet, as long as they have been licensed for two years or have completed a safety class.

Lawmakers from both parties framed the debates as a question of whether the state should legislate personal responsibility, while a bipartisan group of senators said such regulations save lives and money. Skeptics said more education would be a better way to balance people’s rights with promoting safety.

Missouri’s rate of seat belt use was about 79 percent and trending downward in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while the national usage rate was remaining stable around 87 percent.

Republican Sen. Dave Schatz said he questioned the methodology used to collect that data, and he was reluctant to create another reason for police to pull over drivers.

“We will all agree, it’s smart to wear a seat belt. It’s smart to wear helmets. But it comes down to whether or not — do we legislate morality? Do we legislate common sense?” he asked.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat from University City, said requiring people to take a few seconds to buckle seat belts is hardly a government overreach.

Kayle Denny told the committee that nobody in her car was wearing a seat belt when she crashed in Warsaw in 2007, so all three occupants were ejected. She injured her spinal cord, and her friend was pronounced dead at the scene.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t beat myself up for not making my passengers buckle up,” she said. “Please pass this bill.”

Another person who was in a crash, Jamie Palermo of Fulton, said the texting ban would help change the culture of distracted driving.

Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Williamstown, raised questions about whether police would have the power to check people’s phones during traffic stops.

Holsman said people have the freedom to make all sorts of risky choices, and wearing a motorcycle helmet shouldn’t be any different.

He said he wears a helmet when riding his Harley-Davidson, but taking away people’s choice in the matter is a “paternalistic” policy.

“We know if you wear a helmet in your car, you’re going to reduce the chances of a fatality. But yet, we’re not requiring people in cars, passengers in cars, to wear helmets, even though that would reduce fatalities,” Holsman said.

Each of the bills still needs a vote to move out of committee and onto the Senate floor. It’s not clear if or when those votes will occur.

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