A couple of thousand times a year in Missouri, drivers who are splitting their attention between looking at the road and looking at a cellphone crash their vehicles. In some of those crashes, inevitably, the driver or someone else dies.
Some Missouri legislators are trying – again – to outlaw cellphone use while driving. It's a commonsense idea that, based on national trends, seems certain to become state law sooner or later. The only question is how many more drivers will die before it does.
So far, 16 states have banned all handheld phone activity while driving. Texting while driving – possibly the most pervasive and dangerous activity, because it takes the driver's eyes completely off the road – has been banned in all but three states.
But in Missouri, drivers 21 and older can do pretty much anything they want on their phones while guiding a two-ton machine down public roadways at high speeds.
In 2017, there were almost 2,600 crashes in Missouri, both fatal and nonfatal, that police know involved cellphones. Officials say that number is almost certainly low because of people who either don't admit they were using a phone or who don't survive to explain what happened.
Missouri does prohibit texting by drivers under 21. But according to the Missouri Department of Transportation, some 70 percent of drivers in crashes that involved cellphones were 21 and older. This isn't just an issue for inexperienced drivers but all drivers.
Yet year after year, numerous measures in Jefferson City seeking to restrict cellphone usage while driving fail to win approval. As the Post-Dispatch's Kurt Erickson reported Wednesday, proponents are trying again this year.
Legislators have introduced at least six bills to restrict cellphone usage while driving in various ways. Measures by Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, would ban texting for drivers of all ages – which should be viewed as the bare minimum that needs to be done.
Better yet are bills filed by Reps. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, and Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, to ban all cellphone usage while driving.
If the past is a guide, even the milder measures will face an uphill fight for approval. It isn't difficult to guess why. In Missouri, as everywhere else in America, cellphones have become so ubiquitous – and are used so often, for so many things – that asking people to put them away while driving is, for some, like oxygen deprivation.
The problem can only be solved with the kind of fundamental cultural change America experienced when drinking while driving went from being routine to being legally and socially unacceptable. Such a transformation regarding cellphones behind the wheel may take time, but a strict state law making it a moving violation with significant fines is a good way to start.
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch