JEFFERSON CITY — Compared to the rest of the nation, Missouri is noticeably lacking in laws deterring distracted drivers. Most states have four or five relevant laws, but Missouri is one of 12 states that has one or none.
Currently, the state of Missouri only prohibits texting while driving for young adults age 21 and younger.
To improve safety in Missouri, a Distracted Driving Summit, moderated by Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull, was held in Jefferson City on Thursday. About 80 people attended.
The summit was intended to develop an education program that can be used statewide and that can inform the public about the perils of distracted driving. It also focused on finding better ways to enforce the existing law in lieu of additional legislation.
The summit began Thursday morning with a presentation by keynote speaker Jennifer Smith, who has been campaigning against distracted driving since her mother was killed in a 2008 car accident. Smith's mother was hit by a young man talking on a hands-free device.
"After (my mother's accident), we coined the term as 'death by cellphone,'" Smith said. She emphasized that even hands-free devices constitute distracted driving, as they impede the driver's cognitive responses.
"Yes, your hand is on the wheel," Smith said. "But your brain isn't seeing what's right in front of it."
She referred to this as "inattention blindness." A study at the University of Utah has shown distracted driving places the driver's cognitive functions at a level similar to that of an intoxicated person with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, which is the legal limit.
In the time it takes to send or read a text, a driver can travel the length of a football field, according to research. An estimated 4 million texts are sent per minute in America.
Smith said the number of fatalities resulting from distracted driving is comparable to one major aircraft crash per week. If a major airline flight crashed, she said, everyone would want to know how to prevent it from happening again.
"But for some reason, we're complacent with our traffic accidents," she said.
The distracted driving law is state legislation, meaning municipalities cannot pass more stringent ordinances because they cannot override statutory law.
Law enforcement has found the texting while driving law, instituted in August 2009, is difficult to enforce. Although officers at accidents fill out crash reports and have the power to subpoena phone records, that doesn't always occur.
Currently the only distracted driving law in place in Missouri punishes careless and imprudent driving, a misdemeanor.
Given the lack of laws in Missouri, law enforcement agencies must draft carefully worded city ordinances and use creative strategies to stop distracted drivers, at checkpoints, for example, pairing up offenses like speeding and phone use, and using high ground to be able to look into cars.
In the city of Town and Country, near St. Louis, a city ordinance defines an inattentive driver as "any person operating a moving motor vehicle who fails to maintain a proper lookout."
Capt. Shannon Trice of the Syracuse Police Department spoke at the summit about a pilot program instituted in Syracuse, N.Y., which summit participants were analyzing as a possible model for Missouri.
Through the pilot program, sponsored by the Department of Transportation, a high number of tickets were issued to deter distracted drivers. The strategy was found to be effective in discouraging phone use. New York has a statewide ban on all phone use, including talking and texting. Drivers are fined $100 for talking on the phone and $150 for texting.
Led by Lt. John Hotz, the assistant director of the Public Information and Education Division for the Highway Patrol, a group of people from across the state came together during the summit to discuss educating the public on the dangers of distracted driving.
With inattention listed as the primary cause of crashes in Missouri, the group sought methods to bring attention to the issue. They hoped that a presentation could be created that could be modified to fit the audience.
To remedy a lack of statistics in Missouri about what contributes to distracted driving, a new crash report form and policy was introduced in January. It offers more detailed options to establish what exactly distracted the driver. It discriminates between hand-held devices, hands-free devices, web browsing and more.
"We don't really know how big of a problem we have because the statistics just aren't there," Hotz said.
The summit will reconvene Friday morning to discuss driving enforcement grants, existing state law and the new crash reports.