uring a roundtable discussion on distracted driving Tuesday at the University of Missouri, law enforcement officers, transportation specialists and victims of distracted driving urged legislators to enact a new law against texting while driving.
Capt. John Hotz with the Missouri State Highway Patrol said he has seen the “evolution” of distracted driving firsthand. When Hotz began his career in law enforcement 30 years ago, cell phones didn’t exist.
“We had people that were distracted by other people in the car, adjusting the radio, eating or drinking and combing or shaving their hair,” said Hotz. “Now, it’s so much easier for people to become distracted because we have so many more devices.” Today, there are half a billion cell phones out there.
“We also have a craving to be instantly connected with everything else in the world,” said Hotz. “Unfortunately, that carries over to when we are driving as well. And as we know, driving is a full-time job. Anytime we are doing something else, that is taking away from our primary function.”
In Missouri, distracted driving is a growing problem that causes about 13.7 percent of all car crashes. Last year, there were 79 fatalities and 19,239 crashes that involved a distracted driver, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). Of those total crashes, 564 resulted in serious injuries, like paralysis or injury to internal organs.
“We see firsthand the effects of traffic crashes,” said Capt. Hotz. “After we work those crashes, we go and talk to family members of those who got killed. If you talk to any law enforcement officer, they will tell you that is, without a doubt, the very worst part of our job.”
In an effort to curb these preventable deaths on highways, Capt. Hotz said, “We have to do something.”
Jennifer Smith with Stop Distraction is one of those family members left grieving due to the loss of a family member. Distracted driving, Smith said, caused the death of her mother in September of 2008.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic like we have never seen on our roads,” said Smith. “The level of danger associated with the practice is clear, and we must do all we can do prevent any further carnage on our roads. We must socially stigmatize this behavior and updating and modernizing our laws to keep up with that evolving technology is necessary to send a message that driving distracted in Missouri will come with some serious consequences.”
When someone takes their eyes off the road, even for three seconds, their chance of being involved in a crash goes up.
Smith pointed out that people are using cell phones while driving for a wide range of purposes far beyond calling and texting.
“They are on social media, they’re filming videos, taking pictures, they’re streaming Netflix and YouTube, they’re shopping, playing games, and with all these new uses the tragedies are multiplying and becoming more and more horrific,” said Smith.
The way to reverse this statewide culture is by enacting a new law against texting while driving, said Smith.
“The lives of people of Missouri are worth more than a moment’s distraction,” said Smith. “Our loved one’s lives are worth more.”
Missouri and Montana are the only states in the country that do not have a law against texting while driving regardless of age.
In Missouri, there is a law on the books that makes it a crime for those 21 and younger to text and drive. However, law enforcement officers have been quick to point out it is hard to enforce a law that requires officers to speculate someone’s age while traveling in a motor vehicle.
Additionally, statistics show that 70 percent of those involved in cell phone related crashes were age 22 or older.
Rep. Kip Kendrick acknowledged this issue hasn’t been adequately addressed by the legislative branch. The challenge has been classifying the offense.
Back in 2018, Kendrick said, the House of Representatives couldn’t agree on whether officers should be allowed to pull over a vehicle and give the driver a citation or if the citation could only be issued after a driver was already pulled over for a separate offense.
The bill in the Senate moved even more slowly. Kendrick encouraged the public to “stay engaged in this issue,” specifically by contacting county, state and local officials about this issue.
Nicole Wood, a traffic engineer with MoDOT, delved further into the troubling statistics behind distracted driving.
“We do have a lot of work to do when it comes to improving highway safety in Missouri,” said Wood. “Highway crashes are a leading cause of death in Missouri, and car crashes for teens are the number one killer.”
Each fatal crash causes an estimated $9 million in economic and societal harm in Missouri. The amount of money all vehicle crashes cost in economic and societal harm in Missouri is estimated at $1.7 billion.
The problem is continuing to grow. Just over the past five years, cell phone related crashes in the state have increased by 35 percent, said Wood.
“During the summer of 2017, the National Safety Council released the State of Safety Report that showed a national snapshot of state rankings. Missouri received a letter grade F,” said Wood. That report recommended policy action to combat distraction-related crashes.
The National Safety Transportation Board (NSTB) also supports immediate legislative action to fight against distracted driving. The NSTB recommends banning all electronic devices, except those that help navigate drivers to their destination.
“Your right to drive and injure innocent people doesn’t exist,” said Bruce Landsberg, a pilot and vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.