JEFFERSON CITY — First Missouri's youngest drivers were told to quit sending cell phone text messages, and now lawmakers are going after everybody else.
Lawmakers have filed several bills for the 2010 session that would extend a ban on texting while driving to all motorists. Last year, the legislature barred those 21 years old and younger from sending electronic messages.
Rep. Don Wells, R-Cabool, who runs a defensive driving school and is sponsoring one of the bills, said it is ridiculous for Missouri's text message ban to only affect certain ages.
"That's like saying, 'You can kill yourself if you're over 21,'" said Wells. "Texting is one of the most dangerous things you can do while on the road."
Drivers distracted by their telephones and other communications devices has gained national notoriety in the last year, and numerous states have since moved to restrict texting while driving.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured last year in traffic accidents tied to distracted motorists.
A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study released in July found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not sending messages. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than half the states will ban some drivers from sending text messages while driving by 2010. Eighteen states will not allow any motorists to send text messages from behind the wheel.
The Missouri Department of Transportation, which in previous years has lobbied for various roadway safety measures such as seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws, in November banned its employees from sending text messages while operating equipment or driving agency vehicles. That ban also applied to employees who were working while driving their own vehicles.
Leanna Depue, the director of the department's Highway Safety Division, said banning drivers from sending text messages is an equally important safety step. Depue said the agency would help support the legislation.
"We're concerned about any type of multitasking in the vehicle that takes a person's attention, eyes or ears away," she said.
Missouri's existing texting ban for drivers 21 and younger allows motorists to send a message from behind the wheel to report crimes, seeking medical help and sending off a warning to prevent other injuries or property damages. The law specifically permits drivers to talk on hand-held cell phones, and allows emergency responders to text if required by their jobs.
The texting bans proposed for the 2010 session that starts Jan. 6 would keep those exceptions. One proposed bill would bar texting on paved roads but permit it on private and public gravel roads. Several dozen lawmakers have signed on to support of at least one measure.
Sen. Ryan McKenna, who sponsored last year's ban, said he doesn't want any motorist sending off messages while driving, calling it "a bad idea regardless of age."
McKenna, D-Crystal City, said he decided to push for the ban last year after he crossed an entire lane of traffic and nearly drove off an interstate highway while sending a text message during a trip to Jefferson City. He stayed on the road because the car hit a rumble strip on the shoulder.
"A light bulb went off that this is just stupid," said McKenna, who said he also plans to file a bill barring all motorists from texting while driving.