Missouri lawmaker calls for limiting drivers’ cell phone use

| 1/18/2008

A Missouri state Senator has introduced a bill that would require drivers in the state to keep their hands off their phones. Another effort would boost the legal driving age for teens.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, the bill would mandate that drivers put down their hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. Talking on a phone equipped with a hands-free accessory would still be permitted.

The bill would make it a secondary offense to drive while using a hand-held phone – meaning a person would have to be pulled over for another violation, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed for talking on the phone. Violators would face $20 fines. Repeat offenders would face $50 fines.

Among the exemptions listed in the bill are for emergency calls and using push-to-talk two-way, or “walkie-talkie,” devices that are popular in the trucking industry.

Supporters of limiting driver distractions point to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency contends that “distractions,” such as cell phones, contribute to as many as 30 percent of all traffic wrecks.

However, more studies show that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting. Opponents of cell phone restrictions also say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

Others say lawmakers shouldn’t be restricting people in their vehicles.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. In July, California and Washington are slated to implement their own rules on cell phones.

Only New Jersey and Washington have included “texting” while driving in their bans.

Dempsey’s bill – SB887 – is in the Senate judiciary panel. A similar effort in the House – HB1429 – is awaiting assignment to committee.

A separate measure intended to improve safety on roadways in the state would raise the legal driving age for teens.

Sponsored by Rep. Joe Smith, R-St. Charles, the bill would increase the legal driving age from 16 to 18 years old. The age for any person to obtain an instruction permit would be raised from 15 to 17 years old.

The bill – HB1492 – is awaiting assignment to committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest in Missouri for 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor