South St. Louis County News

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South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Missouri’s new distracted driving law begins with warning-only period

Missouri drivers violating the rules of the road are eligible for a second penalty — for texting and driving. (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

As of Aug. 28, a Missouri law will penalize drivers for using their cell phones while the car is moving.

Inattention is a leading cause of collisions, said Captain John Hotz, director of public information and education for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Between 2017 and 2021, roughly 380 people died in incidents involving a distracted driver, according to the Missouri Coalition for Road Safety.

But law-enforcement officers can’t penalize someone just for holding a phone. A driver must also be committing another violation.

Texting while driving is a secondary offense — meaning police officers can’t pull a driver over simply for using a cell phone, but it can be added to other citations.

“The seatbelt law is also a secondary violation, but yet we still have almost 90% of people wearing their seatbelts,” Hotz told The Independent. “Our hope is that even though this is a secondary violation, if we can get nine out of 10 people to stop using these devices when they’re driving, that’s going to make a huge difference in the number of crashes that we see.”

Officers also may not search a driver’s cell phone unless a violation of the law “results in serious bodily injury or death.”

Law enforcement will issue warnings until 2025.

Then, citations will cost up to $150 for the first offense, $250 for the second violation in 24 months and $500 for the third. Fines can cost up to $500 for the first offense if the driver is in a construction or school zone.

The law prohibits holding a cell phone, except when stopped. Drivers are also not allowed to record or watch videos, although this can be done hands-free.

The law carves out a few situations in which one can use their phone: Viewing a map, accessing music or podcasts and communicating with emergency services.

Hotz said he didn’t think one could hold their phone while looking at GPS and recommended drivers obtain a dashboard mount for a cell phone, but the carveout may protect drivers in that situation.

Drivers may use hands-free technology, like Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, headsets and technology built into the car.

In the Missouri House, legislators had concerns the law would lead to privacy violations as drivers try to prove they weren’t texting.

“​​The problem is, ultimately, the vast latitude that it gives to law enforcement to hassle people on the side of the road without any real ability for you to prove that you are not guilty of this infraction without basically giving up your electronic device to be searched,” Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, said during House discussion.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said she is worried cell-phone usage will become a secondary violation when people are pulled over and record the interaction or call a loved one for help or accountability.

Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, said there is a year and a half to “retrain” oneself to wait until stopped to press record or call a relative. Knight sponsored the amendment that added the distracted driving provision to an overarching bill.

“I can’t tell people who have decades of muscle memory when it comes to how to interact with police for their own safety to retrain themselves on how that works,” Proudie said.

She said her concerns wouldn’t stop her from supporting the amendment because she is also concerned with distracted driving.

“We’ve seen a troubling and unacceptable trend of distracted driving crashes in recent years, and sadly, more times than not, someone other than the distracted driver was killed,” MoDOT State Highway Safety and Traffic Engineer Nicole Hood said in a statement. “We’re thankful the General Assembly and Gov. Parson recognized the need for a hands-free law in Missouri. We’re hopeful this law will change the safety culture around phone use while driving and save lives.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.