Enforcement concerns plague possible extension of texting-while-driving ban

Thursday, March 11, 2010 | 6:24 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Proposed legislation extending the texting-while-driving ban has raised questions about the law's enforceability.

Missouri law prohibits drivers aged 21 and under from texting while behind the wheel. If a bill proposed by Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, is enacted, the ban would encompass drivers of all ages. Though many have spoken out in favor of the legislation's goal, law enforcement officials have voiced concern that such a law would be a challenge to maintain.

Capt. Michael Smith of the Jefferson City Police Department said texting-while-driving bans are "extremely difficult to enforce." Smith said he hopes enforcement would become easier with time, likening possible implementation methods to those used in early drunk driving crackdowns.

"Over the years, we developed certain signs that we watch for," Smith said. "I would imagine we're going to develop techniques to determine if an individual is texting."

Lt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol also citedtraffic behaviors officers use to pinpoint an underage texter, such as weaving across the center line or driving erratically on and off the shoulder.

"Even though enforcement is difficult, it is still important to have legislation in place," Hotz said. "Of course some people will continue to do it until they get caught."

According to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of traffic collisions in Missouri, and the reason behind more than a fourth of crashes reported in 2008.

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, a former chief of police with 17 years of law enforcement experience, said the present ban needs revision.

"The current law is incredibly subjective," Roorda said. "Not only does an officer have to look at a moving vehicle and determine whether the driver is 21 years of age or younger, but they must also determine if the device is being used for a prohibited or allowable use."

Allowable uses, such as dialing a phone number or activating a GPS feature, can make it challenging for officials to discern if a driver is actually texting.

Roorda suggested doing away with some of those allowable uses. Another option would allow officers to subpoena call logs or confiscate the phone, which Roorda said would be unlikely to pass.

"The most important change is getting rid of the age restriction," Roorda said.

Smith echoed Roorda's focus on extending the ban to all ages.

"Texting and driving is just one more bad habit that the American public has developed that is going to lead to traffic-related deaths," Smith said. "It's not an age restriction; there's a lot of people that (text while driving)."

Enforcement issues are not the only stumbling block hindering this legislation. Concerns about enforcement and racial profiling have stalled a similar bill in the Alabama State Senate.  

Proposed legislation in the Missouri Senate that would modify several automobile-related laws — including extending the texting-while-driving ban to all ages — received first-round approval March 3. The Senate bill would also cut the requirement for a front license plate, an amendment that does not sit well with the Missouri Police Chiefs Association.

Sheldon Lineback, the association's director, said though the texting-while-driving ban is an improvement from the current law, the association is not in favor of dropping the second license plate requirement.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, who proposed the amendment, said it would save the state $3 million.

The House Public Safety Committee is expected to discuss its version of the bill March 16. The Senate bill must be approved once more before going to the House.

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