Better late than never, and better than nothing. That’s about the best that can be said of the ban on cellphone usage while driving that the Missouri Legislature has sent to Gov. Mike Parson. The law doesn’t make cellphone usage a primary offense for which a driver can be pulled over. Still, it’s a small step in the right direction for a state that has badly lagged the nation in addressing the scourge of distracted driving. Parson should sign the bill into law, and the Legislature should work to add more teeth into it as soon as possible.
Missouri already prohibits using a cellphone while driving for people under 21, but it remains one of just two states in the nation (Montana is the other) with no restrictions on adults who feel like texting and doing other things on their phones when their eyes should be on the road. Distracted driving accounts for thousands of highway deaths annually, with death rates rising in recent years as cellphone usage has gone from being commonplace to ubiquitous.
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There’s no real rational argument for not outlawing cellphone usage behind the wheel. Warnings that it’s government overreach ignore the fact that society long ago accepted myriad restrictions on driving — licensing, speed limits, stop signs — because a rolling two-ton machine is inherently dangerous. Missouri conservatives who have zealously sought to insert government into the medical decisions of women and transgender patients have sounded more than a little inconsistent in arguing there is some sacred privacy right to cellphone usage while driving.
As we noted earlier this year, state laws addressing this issue vary widely in important details. It’s good that the Missouri bill that passed in the legislative session’s final week doesn’t make the mistake of drawing irrelevant distinctions between texting, emailing, making calls or any of the other many things people do on their phones. The law would make it illegal for a driver to “physically hold or support, with any part of his or her body, an electronic communication device,” which is the right standard. Distraction is distraction, whether it’s a text from a spouse or a cute cat video.
But the bill’s intent is undermined by making texting while driving a secondary offense (as opposed to a primary offense), meaning police couldn’t pull drivers over and ticket them merely for visibly using a cellphone while driving. The cop would have to wait until, for example, that distracted driver runs a stop sign or veers recklessly — or, say, hits a construction worker. Only then could the driver be ticketed for the cellphone usage along with the primary offense.
That is every bit as nonsensical as it sounds. This bill is a start, but it shouldn’t be the final word.