JEFFERSON CITY – Driving while texting is illegal for people under 21, and multiple bills discussed at a hearing Tuesday could extend the ban to all drivers.
The committee heard three nearly identical bills from Reps. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, Michele Kratky, D-St. Louis and Keith English, D-Florissant. These bills would extend the texting while driving ban to all drivers regardless of age; they differ in exemptions to the law. Kratky’s bill allows for texting provided it is hands-free, and Ellinger’s bill only applies to noncommercial drivers. English’s bill is the strictest and does not include either of those exemptions.
Missouri would join the 41 other states in a complete ban of texting while driving if one of these bills were to pass.
A bill from Rep. Don Gosen, R-Ballwin, would also ban texting while driving but with much stricter penalties. He said in committee the penalties would be similar to those for drinking alcohol and driving.
According to Gosen’s original bill on the House website, the first offense for texting and driving would result in a suspension of the driver’s license for 30 days. Getting caught a second time would result in imprisonment for a minimum of five days, and the offender's license would be suspended for five years if both offenses occured within five years of each other.
Gosen said the two actions should be treated the same because they have similar results. He said according to studies that he’s seen, texting while driving can make drivers more impaired than drinking and driving.
Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Odessa, said we should try to prevent distracted driving and is supportive of the three bills by Ellinger, Kratky and English, but he said Gosen’s bill is too harsh.
"I think the penalties are too steep," he said. "If you’re drunk driving or high and driving, you’re that way for an hour or two or three. If you text and drive, you take your eyes off the road, you put it down, and now you’re no longer impaired."
The other three bills discussed had much lighter penalties. Ellinger said at the hearing the penalty for his bill would be similar to driving without a seat belt.
Kolkmeyer brought up the issue of law enforcement. He said texting is only one type of distraction from the phone, and police would have a hard time telling the difference between someone using their phone for navigation and a texter.
"With the hand-held computers we have today, texting is one app out of thousands," he said.
State Trooper Maj. Tim McDonald said enforcing laws against texting and driving can be difficult because accessing a photo and texting look the same, but just making it illegal to text while driving could curtail people from doing it.
"More so than the enforcement of it, it’s just the idea of having something on the books,” McDonald said. “Once you realize an issue is outlawed, then there will be a certain amount of people who won’t do it because of that fact."
He said there were about 60-70 tickets issued in 2013 for texting while driving.
Kratky had another bill under discussion involving texting and driving. Her other bill would ban texting and phone calls for a driver who is getting paid to drive at least one person. Driver could still make calls if they pulled over and stop the car or use a hands-free device.
The bill was intended to target taxi and bus drivers who would make calls or text. However, the way that the bill is worded, if someone got a ride from a friend and give the driver some money for gas, the driver could be subjected to this law. Kratky said this wasn’t her intention with the bill.
"I don't see that as a problem if people are worried about it," she said. "The main concern I was worried about were taxi drivers and bus drivers. No bill is perfect ... If there is a problem, we can clean it up. I don't have a problem with that."