Hands-free phone debate heats up in Mo.
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Hands-free phone debate heats up in Mo.

Date: January 29, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 26, HB 92, HB 134, SB 129, SB 130

JEFFERSON CITY-- Following a pair of high-profile fatal text-messaging related traffic accidents in the state in the past year, legislation has been filed in Missouri's General Assembly to outlaw any handheld use of cell phones while on Missouri's public roads.  

Five bills were pre-filed in the weeks leading up to the start of the legislative session that would impose a $20 first-time fine and a $50 fine each time thereafter for those caught talking on their cell phones without a hands-free device or are sending text messages while the car is in drive. 
 
Similar legislation has been filed the last two years, but have died in committee without a vote.
 
"I'm looking out for the safety of people on Missouri roads, and that's all I care about," said Rep. Joe Smith, R-St. Charles, who has sponsored cell-phone restrictions the last two years, including this current session. 
 
Rep. Joe Fallert, D-Ste. Genevieve, said he had always considered hands-free cell phone usage an important issue, but that two major accidents in the St. Louis area brought greater urgency to the issue and provoked him to file a bill. 
 
In July of last year, news reports stated that truck driver Jeffrey R. Knight was distracted by a text message he was reading when he drove his tractor trailer into 10 cars backed up on Interstate 64 near Chesterfield, killing three people and injuring 15 more.  He was not charged with a crime. 
 
In a separate incident on Jan. 3 of this year, a toddler in Franklin County died in an accident that occurred after his father fell off the all-terrain vehicle the two were on after he looked down to check a text message while he was operating it, according to news reports at the time.  The 2-year-old remained aboard as the out-of-control ATV careened into a tree, killing him.
 
"Between those situations and just watching people text and watching how people are distracted by cell phones when they don't have both their hands on the wheel, it just kind of drives me crazy," Fallert said. "I know we can't legislate everything, but we can raise awareness that it is not safe."
 
Five states, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands have mandated hands-free cell phone usage while operating a motor vehicle, while seven states and D.C. have banned texting while driving.

Just how unsafe cell phone usage while driving is, however, is up for debate.  Missouri does not keep a record of how many fatal car accidents are caused, at least in part, by one or more involved drivers being on their phones. 
 
A study last year by the multi-million-dollar endowed, non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, claimed that state's new hands-free law would save around 300 lives per year.  Yet that is in a state with over six times the population of Missouri. According to the California Highway Patrol, the state had 4,197 traffic fatalities in 2006, the most recent year with available data.
 
However, Rep. Talibdin El-Amin, D-St. Louis, who first proposed a hands-free bill in 2007 in addition to one this year, said if it saves even one life, the restrictions would be worth it.

"The key thing is to pass legislation that keeps our citizens safe," he said, adding that many of his constituents have supported his introduction of a hands-free bill again this year. "They know they talk on the phone and they know of a time they have been distracted.  And then you hear the stories of people who have been killed because of it, and one is too many."

While the bills currently would ban both text messaging and talking on the phone without a hands-free device, there seems to be less opposition to the texting part of the legislation.  Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Arnold, proposed separate legislation for the two restrictions, but the three House bills encompass both.
 
Sam Licklider, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Realtors, whose organization opposes the hands-free bill, said he wonders why the state would ban handheld phone usage when, he said, activities like eating in the car are just as dangerous.  As for text messaging while driving, however, he said he personally supported banning it and thought it would be much easier to get legislation restricting that activity passed.

"The issue is when you drive down the highway, there are all sorts of dangerous things going on and why they focus on restricting just cell phone use I don't understand," he said. "But texting in the car?  That's just plain crazy.  I don't know how people can do that and not kill themselves."
 
The vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee predicted the Missouri proposals would get a more favorable reaction in the legislature this year compared to past years when they've been virtually ignored.
 
"When you go into a session, there is only so much time to get bills through," said Rep. Sally Faith, R-St. Charles. She gave credit to the bill sponsors Smith and El-Amin.  "They have been persistent, it's just an issue of what we can get brought up and through in a short time frame."  The General Assembly session is set to end on May 15.

Rep. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, chairman of the committee, did not specifically endorse the bill, but he did say he personally uses a hands-free device while driving and that the bills would get a "fair hearing" in committee.  He echoed the sentiments of Fallert and El-Amin by saying he hopes these bills at least spark a spirited debate about the dangers of handheld phone usage.

"I think it's great for discussion," he said. "I think both sides should have their chance to debate this issue and we will see where it takes us."

All representatives interviewed, Democrat and Republican, agreed that there are civil liberties concerns with this law, but they hoped they could frame it as a safety issue over anything else.

"Some people just don't want to be told what they can and can't do, and to an extent I agree with that," El-Amin said. "But when it poses a threat to others like holding the cell phone while driving has posed, then we have to balance individual rights with the right of others to be safe."