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Why Two States Remain Holdouts on Distracted Driving Laws

Max Herrick pulled over on the interstate near Harrisonville, Missouri, on a spring night in 2020 to offer antifreeze to a woman whose car had overheated.

He had lost a grandson to an overdose just hours before, but aiding stranded motorists was second nature to the 73-year-old retired school custodian, who remembered thousands of students’ names and regularly brought food pantry donations to a retirement community. “He always was there to help people,” said his son Bobby Herrick, who was in the car with him that night.

Just moments later, a truck driver trying to text his wife a picture of the hand sanitizer he had purchased swerved onto the shoulder and plowed into the vehicles, according to court and crash records. While the truck driver was not injured and the woman and Bobby Herrick recovered from their injuries, Max Herrick became one of at least 382 people who died in Missouri crashes involving a distracted driver from 2017 through 2021, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety.

Despite such tragedies, Missouri is one of two states — the other is Montana — that do not prohibit all drivers from text messaging while operating vehicles. (Missouri has such a law for people 21 and under.)

Before this year, Missouri state lawmakers from both parties had proposed more than 80 bills since 2010 with varying levels of restrictions on cellphone use and driving. Similar legislation has been proposed in Montana, too. In both states, such bills have faltered, largely because Republican opponents say they don’t think the laws work and are just another infringement on people’s civil liberties.

Nevertheless, Missouri Republicans and Democrats introduced at least seven bills this session concerning hand-held phone use while driving — and road safety advocates think such legislation has a better chance of passing this year. Montana, meanwhile, has a bill seeking to block localities’ distracted driving laws.

“I’m from the party that wants to minimize the amount of laws — and I agree — but you got to be smart about it,” said Jeff Porter, a Republican and former Missouri state representative who proposed legislation three times to limit hand-held cellphone use. “There are actually laws that are needed to try to provide awareness and save unnecessary deaths.”

Supporters of hands-free driving laws concede that distracted driving restrictions are not a panacea for all traffic fatalities. And even if Missouri passes additional restrictions on cellphone use, small nuances in wording could influence whether such a law is effective.

Nationwide, about 3,000 people typically die in distracted driving crashes each year, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, though researchers suggest that’s an undercount. While hands-free options are now standard for new vehicles, the number of distracted driving deaths has stayed relatively steady. They represented at least 1 in 12 traffic fatalities in 2020.

Distracted driving laws reduce fatalities — if, like the ones established in 24 states, they ban all hand-held cellphone use rather than banning only a specific activity such as texting, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association and a study published in 2021 in the journal Epidemiology. Banning texting alone does not make a difference, those researchers found.

Oregon and Washington saw significant reductions in the rates of monthly rear-end crashes when they broadened their laws to prohibit “holding” a cellphone as compared with states that banned only texting, according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Those two states also prohibited holding a phone when stopped temporarily — say, at a red light.

“If you tell a driver that they are breaking the law just by holding the phone in their hand, a police officer who is trying to enforce that law doesn’t have to decide whether or not the driver is texting,” said Ian Reagan, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute.

By contrast, California broadened its texting bans to prohibit “holding and using” a phone but did not specify whether that ban applied to a driver stopped temporarily. It did not see a significant reduction in rear-end crashes, which the researchers said are a more telling metric than the often-underreported crashes attributed to distracted driving.

Whatever the cause, traffic fatalities have soared since the pandemic began. Among the 10 states with the highest rates of deaths from fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to the Insurance Institute, only one, Tennessee, had a ban on hand-held phone use for all drivers at the time. Among the 10 states with the lowest rates of such fatalities, all but Utah had a hand-held ban for all drivers.

Montana ranked fifth-highest, and Missouri came in at No. 12.

Adrienne Siddens lost her husband, Randall, who was working at a Columbia, Missouri, triathlon in 2019, because a woman using her cellphone to video chat was driving 18 mph over the speed limit and not paying attention to cars stopped at a red light. The driver swerved and entered a lane that was closed for the race, according to court records.

The woman hit two pedestrians, including Randall, who flew more than 127 feet. He spent most of the next six months on life support before dying.

Adrienne Siddens lost her husband, Randall, in 2019 after a driver using a phone to video chat hit two pedestrians, including Randall, at a triathlon in Columbia, Missouri. She has since campaigned — so far unsuccessfully — for Missouri to add laws banning distracted driving.(Randall Siddens)

“I now have to raise our three beautiful babies alone,” Adrienne Siddens, who was pregnant with their third child when the crash occurred, testified in a March 2022 hearing on Porter’s bill. “With your help, passing this legislation and enforcing a hands-free policy, so many other families will not have to experience this grief.”

Republicans referred the legislation to the state House’s Downsizing State Government Committee. The bill died.

State Rep. Tony Lovasco, a Republican who served on the committee, told KHN he’s concerned that either law enforcement could use a ban to stop people randomly or they would have difficulty enforcing it.

“I’m very hesitant to adopt a prohibition on a particular kind of distraction, as opposed to simply enforcing the traffic laws and making sure that people aren’t weaving in and out of lanes,” said Lovasco.

In Montana, Republicans such as state Sen. Jeremy Trebas not only don’t support a statewide ban, but they also want to overrule Missoula and the 14 other Montana cities, towns, and tribal governments that have enacted bans on hand-held cellphone use while driving.

“These laws are going to make the roads more dangerous because people are just going to hide it and put the phone lower in their car instead of keeping their phone up and their eyes up,” said Trebas, who drafted legislation this year that would prevent local governments from enacting such ordinances. Trebas described his evidence to support that assertion as “mostly anecdotal.”

John MacDonald, a former lobbyist for Missoula, opposed a similar bill by Trebas that failed in 2017. MacDonald ascribed resistance to a statewide ban to the same forces that made Montana the last state to establish a numerical speed limit; its limit was “reasonable and prudent” until 1999.

“It’s something ingrained in Montana that our vehicle is sort of an extension of our home, and the government should not be dictating to us how we can behave in that vehicle,” said MacDonald.

A law like Trebas’ proposal already exists in Missouri: Even if a Missouri municipality establishes a ban on texting and driving, as the St. Louis suburb Kirkwood did in 2014, it’s not enforceable because the state says its law supersedes local ordinances.

Angela Nelson, AAA Missouri’s vice president of public affairs and government relations, said her group’s past education on the perils of distracted driving has helped position new statewide proposals to pass this year. The group, part of a coalition that aims to curb distracted driving accidents, endorsed legislation from two Republicans that restricts holding an electronic communication device, as well as using one, while driving. Other Republican legislators introduced a measure to just expand the texting ban to all drivers, regardless of age. AAA has not taken a position on that one.

Lovasco, though, said it was too early to predict whether any will pass.

Siddens, who has advocated for such bills since she lost her husband, remains optimistic that Missouri lawmakers will pass a tougher law after hearing about the tragedies for so many years. “At some point, they will do something about it,” she said. “They will have to.”

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