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.