Missouri cell phone restrictions bill gets tepid reception

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | 6:03 p.m. CST; updated 10:01 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 18, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY – Despite four recent cell-phone-related traffic fatalities in Missouri, several state representatives said a bill restricting hand-held 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 for 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 had even come before a committee.

Smith said the bill would place a $20 first-time fine on any non-commercial driver caught using a cell phone 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 a 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 10 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, one lawmaker said he did not support Smith's bill in the middle of the hearing.

After Smith offered to attempt amending 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."

Smith's Republican colleagues did not appear 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 said driving while engaging in other distracting behaviors such as eating or drinking coffee can be just as dangerous.

Corcoran said cell phone legislation is introduced every year and dies because it is hard to enforce and 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 at 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 House will take a vote on Smith's bill unless it is attached to another bill as an amendment. It doesn't help, Corcoran 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," Corcoran 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."


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