Cell phone restrictions fall on deaf ears
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Cell phone restrictions fall on deaf ears

Date: February 17, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 26

JEFFERSON CITY - Despite four recent cell-phone-related traffic fatalities in Missouri, several state representatives said a bill restricting handheld cell phone usage while driving will likely not be passed into law this session. 

The House Public Safety Committee heard testimony Tuesday in favor of the bill from its sponsor, Rep. Joe Smith, R-St. Charles, who has been pushing for similar legislation the past five years.  The bill has never made it out of committee, and Smith said this was the first time any of his bills have even come before a committee.

Smith said the bill would place a $20 first-time fine on any non-commercial driver caught using their cell phones without a hands-free device. He said he personally uses a hands-free device and has nearly been in multiple accidents caused by a driver on their cell phone.

"There are several situations where I was driving, and the person to my left or my right was on a cell phone, and they moved over, and if I hadn't stopped I would have been nailed," Smith said. "If they had both hands on the wheels, they could pay attention to what's around them, their mirrors and the road."

Two well-publicized accidents in the past year in St. Louis County brought new attention to the hazards of driving while holding a cell phone. Last July, news reports stated that a truck driver was distracted by a text message when he drove his trailer into the back of ten cars stalled in traffic on Interstate 64, killing three and injuring 10 more. In January, a man in Eureka fell off his all-terrain vehicle while reading a text message, but his two year-old son remained on board. The ATV crashed into a tree, killing the child.

The bill would excuse two-way radio use by commercial truck drivers, Smith said, because he has found that any bill without that exception is politically untenable. It would also excuse drivers who use their phones in an emergency.

No committee members or witnesses spoke on behalf of the bill. While there were no witnesses against the legislation either, one lawmaker said he did not support Smith's bill in the middle of the hearing.

After Smith offered to attempt to amend the legislation to cover commercial drivers as well, Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Ann, said, "Don't rewrite it on my count because I don't support your bill at all."

Republican colleagues of Smith's did not seem receptive to the bill either. Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, expressed displeasure, calling the legislation another example of the government intruding upon residents' liberties.

"My general rule of thumb is, I am generally opposed to anything that is a further government intrusion into personal freedoms," he said. "There has to be a compelling, overriding interest in order for the government to intrude on individual rights and individual freedoms. I think restricting people from using cell-phones in their vehicle doesn't meet that test."

Stevenson added that there are a number of distractions people can make for themselves in their car, such as eating or drinking coffee, that are just as dangerous in his opinion.

Corcoran said that cell phone legislation is introduced every year, and it dies because it is hard to enforce and too many legislators view it as too much government encroachment. He did not dispute that driving while holding a phone is dangerous, but he echoed Stevenson's concern that the bill is unfair because it only singles out one activity.

"The bill has been around several years," he said. "There's obviously a problem, but how you criminalize one distraction over all others is unfair."

Corcoran said he would bet that this time next year Missourians will still be able to use their cell phones without a hands-free device. He said it is highly unlikely the full House will take a vote on Smith's bill, unless it were attached to another bill as an amendment. It doesn't help, he said, that Smith has tried to get this bill through previously to no avail.

"The fact that he has had the bill for a few years and not been moving it all hasn't helped," he said. "I would say the bill has a slim chance to make it out of committee; I'd say it has a slim to no chance at all to make it to the floor."