Anti-cell phone usage while driving laws find unlikely foe

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 | 11:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:26 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 18, 2010
Realtor Brent Gardner, of ReMAX, navigates the streets of downtown Columbia while talking on his cellular phone on July 10. Real estate agents, who often use their cars as mobile offices, have strongly opposed cell-phone restrictions. “My office is the city of Columbia,” Gardner said. “My job is a little different than most people in that I’m mobile.”

COLUMBIA — In the past three years, the Missouri legislature has attempted six times to pass some kind of legislation limiting drivers' use of a cell phone. Three bills would have banned talking on a hand-held cell phone in the car, and the other three would have banned texting.  

All of them failed.

Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, broke the barrier in the legislature's last session. He introduced an omnibus crime bill — passed and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon on July 9 — that makes sending, reading and writing text messages while driving against the law for people 21 and younger.

Rep. Joe Smith, R-St. Charles, whose own attempts to push through legislation limiting hand-held cell phone use failed, said he thinks the new law slipped through without the usual opposition because it only applies to people 21 and younger. 

Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, who introduced his own bill this session limiting text messaging while driving, said, "the house was uncomfortable with the bill without the age restriction."

Cell phone legislation, such as McKenna and Smith's bills, usually runs up against some powerful opposition: legislators who see the limitations as an invasion of privacy and real estate lobbyists.

Yes, real estate lobbyists. It's not the telecommunication lobby, as one might think, that wants to beat back efforts to limit cell phone use. In fact, the telecommunications companies "helped write legislation so it fit Missouri statutes," Smith said. "They did a lot of clarifying. They didn't do anything to harm it."

The real opposition was seen from lobbyists representing real estate agents, who often use their cars as traveling offices.

“My office is the city of Columbia,” ReMax realtor Brent Gardner said. “My job is a little different than most people in that I’m mobile.”

The Missouri Association of Realtors takes the following position: "We're generally opposed to restrictions on cell phone use, when they're used as cell phones" said Sam Licklider, a lobbyist for the association. "The simple fact is, (realtors) are in their car a lot and they use their phones for business." Licklider said his association has not yet taken an official stand on text messaging while driving.


While Smith's latest bill addressing hand-held cell phone limitations stalled in the House Public Safety Committee, McKenna’s bill addressed text messaging in the car and passed in the senate with a vote of 31-3. The bill then also stalled in the House Public Safety Committee.  

When asked about McKenna's bill, one of the three dissenting voters, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said that there was already a law in place to cover text messaging in the car. The law, nicknamed the Careless & Imprudent Driving law, is an umbrella law that covers dangerous behaviors in the car, Crowell said. The other two senators did not return calls for comment.

The three dissenting voters for McKenna’s 2009 bill — Crowell, Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield — have received $18,075, $3,300, and $1,950 respectively in campaign contributions from real estate lobbyists.

Crowell said lobbyists did not influence his vote.

“We currently have a statewide catch-all with the (careless and imprudent law),” he said. “I am opposed to texting but if we go down this route, we’re going to have to pass a law for every behavior that is not wise to do while driving.”  

Crowell listed activities that he felt were as dangerous as texting in the car, citing eating, reading, applying makeup and changing clothes.

“I actually saw somebody reading the newspaper while driving,” he said.  

Crowell thinks texting while driving needs to be stopped, but the careless and imprudent law should be “beefed-up” instead of adding a separate law banning texting.  

A professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Finn-Aage Esbensen, takes a similar view.  

“You can’t legislate stupidity,” he said. “We already have umbrella laws that address the issue. There really is no need (for a specific texting law).”

Esbensen said a texting law would be unrealistic to enforce and unlikely to deter texting drivers.

“Public education and informal social control by others are more likely to work,” he said.

On the other hand, Sgt. Shelley Jones, Columbia Police Department Traffic Unit supervisor, thinks legislation banning texting while driving is a good idea.  

“I think texting while driving is excessively dangerous, so I think it would be beneficial,” she said. Under the Careless and Imprudent law, “if they’re driving down the street and texting and they’re not committing any traffic violations, I don’t have reasonable suspicion to pull them over,” she said.

Starting Aug. 28, Jones and her traffic unit will be able to pull over anyone 21 or under that they see texting in the car.

Although they said the under-21 law is a step in the right direction, McKenna and Smith aren’t done yet.

“A lot of the time in Jefferson City, you have to crawl before you can walk,” McKenna said. Of a bill applying to all ages, he said, “I plan on proposing it again next year.”

“You’re basically inviting people to come to Missouri and text while driving, unless they’re 21 or under,” Smith said. He plans to continue fighting for all-age legislation as well.

For now, Gardner and other Missouri real estate agents can continue to use their phones as they please, provided they are over the age of 21.

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Debra McDade July 14, 2009 | 1:19 p.m.

I believe driving w/a cell phone attached to one's ear is like driving the car with a bomb in it. I have seen strangers as well as family, answer and talk w/the phone driving all over the road including heading toward the shoulder and the oncoming lane. I do have a cell phone; however, it is rarely used as it is for emergencies only. If someone wants to talk w/me, they can call me at home. So many people seem to have gotten the idea that 'chatting' on a phone while driving is a God given right. In fact, it causes accidents and near accidents and then they want to know what happened. 'Why, I was only talking' they say. People, please stop the selfish 'me attitude' about yourself and start thinking about the others on the road w/you.

(Report Comment)
Bill Smith July 14, 2009 | 1:43 p.m.

“My office is the city of Columbia,” ReMax realtor Brent Gardner said. “My job is a little different than most people in that I’m mobile.”

Then get a hands free device.

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken July 14, 2009 | 1:53 p.m.

It is very easy now-a-days to get a hands-free device for using your car as an office. My father isn't a real estate agent but he is on the phone a lot for his business and on the road. His new truck is blue tooth enabled so he can do just that. There are also many cheaper devices for having hands free communication. These laws are not "anti-cell phone usage" they are typically fine with using hands-free devices, but not with people having one hand on the wheel and the other on a mobile device. If your car is really your office then you should take the time and money to outfit it as such. There is no excuse for people like Brent in this article.

The age restriction is ridiculous too. It doesn't matter how old you are to be distracted by cell phones while driving.

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken July 14, 2009 | 1:54 p.m.

I also noticed Brent is driving a BMW there. You think he can afford this:

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 14, 2009 | 2:32 p.m.

Amber, I think the most recent study I had seen showed there wasn't much of a difference between "regular" cell phone usage and hands-free devices with respect to accidents.

(Report Comment)
Mike Bellman July 14, 2009 | 3:19 p.m.

I use my handsfree earpiece all the time. What I want to know however is how a police officer is going to issue a citation for texting.

Is dialing a phone texting? A traffic citation is still a minor criminal offense which requires the burden of PROOF. How does one propose to prove someone is texting over fiddling with the garage remote?

(Report Comment)
Bob Smith July 14, 2009 | 3:55 p.m.

John, I saw the same study you did. It's not the act of holding the phone that is the issue, it's where the mind is at while talking on a phone. And I think it was the University of Utah that did a study going one step further. They tested drivers after driving while talking on a phone and most had no idea of the mistakes they made, which included running red lights, swerving, and speeding.

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken July 14, 2009 | 5:25 p.m.

So should we not allow drivers to talk to passengers in the car or listen to the radio and sing along? It's obviously more than just talking because this was not an issue before cell phones. Holding a device to your head is clearly more distracting besides the fact you only have one arm on the wheel.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 14, 2009 | 6:39 p.m.

I know of people who ran off the road due to fiddling with the radio, trying to catch a tipping cup of soda, etc. etc. Do we specifically criminalize that as well, or use the existing careless and imprudent driving statute? I say the latter.

(Report Comment)
Bob Smith July 14, 2009 | 8:33 p.m.

There are other distracting actions that will cause accidents, but so far the studies indicate it's the talking on the phone that is the problem. For whatever reason, talking to someone else who is physically in the car is not nearly as distracting to the driver as talking to someone on a cell phone. If I can find a link to the studies, I'll post them. The more you read them, the more you'll be convinced that people shouldn't be using cell phones while driving.

(Report Comment)
Bob Smith July 14, 2009 | 8:53 p.m.

Here is a link to a site that gives a description of the study done, plus it provides more information and links to get additional information.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 15, 2009 | 7:25 a.m.

Here we have the classic confrontation between "logic" and "legality." Logic strongly suggests that the driver of any motor vehicle direct his or her attention strictly to the process of safely operating the motor vehicle; legality deals with the process of somehow "forcing" the driver to do the correct thing and penalizing him or her should they fail to do so.

In fewer words, if people did what makes sense, we wouldn't need all these laws and regulations.

(Report Comment)
Deidre Miles July 15, 2009 | 11:32 a.m.

I saw a moving bicyclist on a fairly busy street texting just the other day ...

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr July 15, 2009 | 11:40 a.m.

Didn't you know in Columbia that bicyclists can do no wrong and get away with everything. They are so above the law.


(Report Comment)
Jim Jones July 15, 2009 | 2:18 p.m.

Well, the intent of all of this may be all well and good, but it is going to be difficult to get the police onboard because they are too busy talking on their own cell phones while driving their patrol vehicles around the area.

(Report Comment)
Dave Denton July 15, 2009 | 6:35 p.m.

I was one of the first "mobile phone" users in Columbia in 1983. As a 26-year veteran in the real estate business, I can tell you that a hands-free device does not solve the problem. Unless your car is a stick shift, it only takes one hand to drive it. Police and truck drivers do it all the time with 2-way radios. It is the amount of concentration required by the conversation that is the problem. Chatting might take very little concentration, but solving a complex problem while driving is extremely dangerous! There isn't enough concentration left over to attend to driving. I will admit that I've had a few close calls but they would not have been alleviated by using a hands-free device.

Texting is a whole different matter. Two hands, both eyes--wow!

(Report Comment)

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