Missouri House looks at bills to make texting while driving illegal for everyone

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 | 4:47 p.m. CST; updated 10:42 a.m. CST, Thursday, March 3, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation to expand the texting while driving ban was met with conflicting opinions in a Missouri House of Representatives committee hearing Wednesday.

The House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee heard three bills to criminalize texting while driving, regardless of age. In 2009, Missouri's legislature passed a similar ban, but limited the bill to those under the age of 22.

Of the three bills discussed, two would make text messaging while driving a primary offense, allowing an officer to stop a driver solely for texting. The third proposal calls for making it a secondary offense. If passed, a driver would need to commit another infraction, such as speeding or improper lane usage, before being penalized for texting.

Col. Ronald Replogle, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, spoke in favor of the primary offense legislation. Replogle said the Highway Patrol wrote 66 distracted driving tickets in 2010. Distracted driving includes actions like eating, changing the radio station or using a cell phone.

"When you (send a text message) behind the wheel of a car, you are just as dangerous as a drunk driver," Replogle said.

Thirty-eight states, including Missouri, have some type of legislation limiting texting while driving. Of those, 30 states currently outlaw texting while driving at any age, he said.

Replogle pointed out the enforceability issues found in the current law, highlighting the difficulty of determining whether an individual is texting and their age while driving.

A lobbyist for the Missouri State Troopers Association Brad Thielemier was questioned by the committee on how a trooper could determine if a driver was using a phone to send a text message or to make an allowed phone call or check a GPS function. Thielemier said it would be up to an officer to make a judgment call.

"There's no good answer for that," Thielemier said.

Thielemier said he was concerned that not letting police stop a driver for suspected texting would do little to combat distracted driving and impede officers from pulling over violators.

"Let us do our jobs," Thielemier said. "Let us enforce this."

But the sponsor of the limited approach, Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said making texting while driving a primary offense would effectively create a "criminal defense lawyer's dream."

Colona said he was concerned with the difficulties officers might have showing probable cause for pulling over a driver under suspicion of texting and the possibility of profiling. Colona called his proposal "the most workable alternative" to a primary offense law.

Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Platte City, said he was unsure the legislation balanced public safety with constitutional concerns. Marshall said he was worried constituents would feel government was "too involved," and harbor animosity.

"We don't want to go out and hassle people that are doing legal activity," Marshall said.

Representatives from major insurance agencies and wireless phone services, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon, also testified in favor of the bill.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposals.

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