Late last year, federal safety officials made a deadly crash in rural eastern Missouri a focal point in a nationwide call to ban drivers from using their cellphones while behind the wheel.
The National Transportation Safety Board pointed to a 2010 pileup on Interstate 44 in Franklin County, where a pickup truck collided with a slowing big rig cab and was then slammed from behind by two school buses packed with high school kids on a band trip. Two people were killed and 38 others injured.
The board said the 19-year-old driver of the pickup had been sending text messages as he drove. It said the Missouri wreck, among others, was so dangerous that no driver should be allowed to use a cellphone — for any reason — while driving.
But nearly two years after the dust settled at the scene of that crash, the incident appears to have done little to motivate Missouri legislators to expand the state’s 2009 law against texting while driving — which currently applies only to drivers 21 and younger.
Thirty-seven states forbid all drivers from texting while behind the wheel. Five Missouri cities have enacted similar local ordinances.
Rep. Don Wells carried anti-texting legislation this year in the House. He said he hadn’t connected his bill to the crash or the NTSB recommendation and there was little discussion of either at a February hearing.
“I never dwelled on that, I just thought about the safety of people in the state,” said Wells, R-Cabool. “It’s not just safety for the person texting, it’s safety for everyone on the road.”
Wells’ measure drew opposition from committee members who said the law doesn’t need to be expanded because officers can simply charge drivers over the age of 22 with violating a law that requires “careful and prudent” driving.
Rep. Gary Fuhr, who opposed Wells’ bill, also pointed out that the driver in the 2010 crash was young enough to be covered by the current law.
“We can’t legislate people not to do this,” said Fuhr, R-St. Louis County. “Is it our job to educate through legislation? I think our job is to legislate in addition to education.”
The full Senate debated legislation to forbid all “distracted” driving, but some members said local police might take advantage of the law’s breadth to issue unnecessary tickets. That bill also likely won’t come to a vote.
Even if state law won’t be changing soon, officials have been trying to crack down on and discourage texting among the state’s drivers. The transportation department displays signs on highways warning drivers not to text. The State Highway Patrol also has started a campaign to raise public awareness about the dangers of texting and driving.
Statewide accident statistics for 2010 show that cellphones were the cause of distraction in about 11 percent of crashes involving driver inattention. Those numbers do not show how many of those drivers crashed because they were texting.
But highway patrol spokesman Cpt. Tim Hull said the agency has implemented a new data collection system this year that will be able to show what distracted drivers were doing on their phones at the time of their crashes.
Hull said enforcing the current texting law is difficult because officers have to determine both that someone was sending a text message and that the person is 21 or younger.
He also said the law against careless and imprudent driving doesn’t go far enough because officers have to observe or find out about someone doing something unsafe in addition to sending a text message in order to charge them under that law. Simply sending a text message, without committing any other traffic violation or getting into an accident, isn’t “imprudent.” Hull said the agency instead favors a full texting ban.
“What we support is anything that is going to make our highways safer and making it apply to all ages would make the enforcement simpler,” he said.
Texting bills are:
SB717 (Distracted driving)
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