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It's simple: Don't text and drive

Wednesday, March 4, 2009 | 1:38 p.m. CST; updated 10:27 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 18, 2010

In a move that brings back memories of Britney Spears behind the wheel with her tot on her lap while driving, Ohio authorities have charged a mother caught driving while breastfeeding her child.

According to the Dayton Daily News, Ohio police received a call on Feb. 26 from a motorist claiming a woman was driving down the road on her cell phone and breastfeeding.

“She literally has the little girl on the steering wheel,” the motorist said in a recording released by the Kettering Police Deptartment on Feb. 27. “I'm like, 'You can feed your kid when you stop.' It's like wet out here. It's full of traffic. It's ridiculous. She's got like three other kids in the car."

The police tracked down 39-year-old Genine Compton, who admitted she had breast-fed while driving her other children to school because she wasn’t about to let her child go hungry, police said.

Are you kidding me, Motorist Mommy? The kid isn't going to starve in the time it took to drop the other children off at school.

Compton was charged with first-degree misdemeanor of child endangering and minor misdemeanor for unlawfully restraining her child. If convicted, she could receive up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,800.

Although this case seems like a blatant and obvious example of poor defensive driving, we are beginning to see a rise in regulations aimed at making sure drivers are paying more attention to the road. No state completely bans cell phone use, which seems logical in case of an emergency, but many have restrictions on how motorists can use their cellular devices. States like California and New Jersey ban all hand-held use, while Alaska and Arkansas ban text messaging.

In May 2008, the Public Policy Institute of California released a study, “What to Expect from California’s New Hands-Free Law," which examined the effect of using hand-held cell phones at the wheel. Researchers found eliminating hand-held devices would reduce traffic deaths by about 300 a year in adverse weather conditions, like wet or icy roadways.

Missouri however, has no restrictions.

We’ve all done it, but some of us are worse than others. Like the breastfeeding mama, I was pretty bad at one time. I have texted, tweeted, Facebooked, e-mailed, applied makeup, changed clothes and eaten lunch while on the road (not all at the same time). I was the ultimate multitasker. Since the day I got my license, my mother’s nagging voice has echoed in my head, “Don’t talk on your phone while you’re driving. Are you texting me while you’re driving?” But it wasn’t until recently I ever thought twice about it.

In the same week my grandparents were sideswiped by a man talking on his phone, I was almost hit by a girl who was texting at the wheel as I was walking through a crosswalk. I wonder, is it really that hard for us to put the car in park before touching that send button?

So I have decided to give up my addiction to driving while under the influence of technology. I've hit a few speed bumps and potholes along the way. Every time I hear the "Ding" of my iPhone, I instinctively reach for my purse like a bad dog in Pavlov's experiment.

The decision not to restrict cell phone use while driving in Missouri is one that has drawn tough criticism on both sides. It reached newsworthiness last July when Jeffrey R. Knight, distracted by a text message, rammed his tractor-trailer into 10 vehicles on I-64 near Chesterfield. Then there was the California conductor who sent a text 22 seconds before his train collided with another train. The debate has continued into this year following the death of a toddler in Franklin County . His father fell off the four-wheeler they were both riding after texting. The toddler remained on the ATV until it crashed into a tree, killing him.

Many law enforcement officers agree that distracted driving from cell phones has led to more accidents statewide.

Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Shinn told the Hannibal Courier-Post, “We’re seeing a rise in traffic crashes just here locally because of cell phones, whether they drop a cell phone, reach down and get it or they’re text messaging on a cell phone.

Police call it "inattention," and insurance companies call it your fault.

"It is negligence," Brent Butler, government affairs director for the Missouri Insurance Coalition told me. "People shouldn't be talking and driving because it causes accidents."

But do we really need legislation to tell us that texting on the road, or any other form of distracted driving, is a bad idea? Isn't the threat of such unpleasantness as not having an accident covered by insurance or possible death enough to deter us from this harmful practice?

Rep. Bryan Stevenson said in a Missourian article that this was just another way to limit the rights of residents.

"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."

As recently as February, this issue has been brought up in our legislature, only to receive worse reception than my phone while driving through the Ozark hills. Although Rep. Joe Smith has been pushing cell phone restrictions for the past five years, it has never gained much of a following.

The proposed bill aimed at making drivers use hands-free devices would have excused two-way radios used by truck drivers and phone calls placed in emergencies. Much of the reason these proposed bills haven’t passed is because they are so hard to enforce.

Butler said Missouri is just behind the times when it comes to dialing and driving.

"As more and more states act on the bills, Missouri might follow," he said.

You might drive every day while texting, calling or snacking. You might, like me, have used your phone while on the road for years with no trouble. But do we need legislation to tell us not to text at the wheel? No. We just need common sense.

Tracy Barnes graduated from MU in 2008 with degrees in journalism and English. She is a former copy editor and multimedia editor for the Missourian. She can be contacted at tracylbarnes@gmail.com.

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