JEFFERSON CITY - Legislation to expand the texting while driving ban was met with conflicting opinions in a House committee hearing Wednesday.
The House Crime Committee heard three bills to criminalize texting while driving, regardless of age. In 2009, Missouri's legislature passed a ban on driving while texting, but limited the bill to those under age 22.
Of the three bills discussed, two would make text messaging while driving a primary offense, allowing an officer to stop a driver solely for texting. The remaining proposal calls for a secondary offense. If passed, a driver would need to commit another infraction, such as speeding or improper lane usage, before being penalized for texting.
Col. Ronald Replogle, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, spoke in favor of the primary offense legislation. Replogle said the Highway Patrol wrote 66 distracted driving tickets in 2010. Distracted driving includes actions like eating, changing the radio station, or using a cell phone.
"When you [send a text message] behind the wheel of a car, you are just as dangerous as a drunk driver," Replogle said.
According to Replogle, 30 states currently outlaw texting while driving at any age.Thirty-eight states, Missouri included, have some type of legislation limiting texting while driving.
Replogle pointed out the enforceability issues found in the current law, highlighting the difficulty of both determining whether or not an individual is texting, but also their age, all while driving.
A lobbyist for the Missouri State Troopers Association Brad Thielemier was questioned by the committee on how a trooper could determine if a driver was using a phone to send a text message or just to make an allowed phone call or to check a GPS function. Thielemier said it would be up to an officer to make a judgment call.
"There's no good answer for that," Thielemier said.
Thielemier said he was concerned that not letting police stop a driver for suspected texting would do little to combat distracted driving and impede officers from pulling over violators.
"Let us do our jobs," Thielemier said. "Let us enforce this."
But the sponsor of the limited approach, Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said making texting while driving a primary offense would effectively create a "criminal defense lawyer's dream."
Colona said he's concerned with the difficulties officers' could have proving probable cause for pulling over a driver under suspicion of texting, and the possibility of profiling. Colona called his proposal "the most workable alternative," to a primary offense law.
Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Platte City, said he was unsure the legislation balanced public safety with constitutional concerns. Marshall said he was worried constituents would feel government was "too involved," and harbor feelings of animosity.
"We don't want to go out and hassle people that are doing legal activity," Marshall said.
Representatives from major insurance agencies and wireless phone services, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon, also testified in favor of the bill.
The committee took no immediate action on the proposals.