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House bill restricts car phone use

April 11, 2001
By: Jennifer Ginsberg
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 670

JEFFERSON CITY - Aiming to prevent deaths caused by those who chat on the telephone while driving, a House Democrat has proposed banning the use of hand-held wireless phones on Missoui roads.

Rep. Marsha Campbell, D-Kanasas City, offered the bill during Tuesday's meeting of the House Motor Vehicle and Traffic Regulations Committee where lawmakers heard details of a fatal 1997 accident that involved a driver distracted by his telephone.

"The car they were passengers in was being driven by a boy who was on a hand-held cell phone," Mardy Burns said, recounting the death of her daughter Sara. "He dropped his phone, leaned down to pick it up and ran off the road."

Sara died instantly. Her boyfriend died a couple of hours later.

"Talking on a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving," Burns told the committee. "It's better to buy a head set, than to buy a headstone for someone you love."

Under Campbell's bill, the use of a wireless telephone that lacks a hands-free device would constitute a Class B misdemeanor charge, which is like getting a speeding ticket. Violations involving an accident would bring increased penalties including two points and a fine of up to $1,000.

Calls for emergency assistance would be exempt form the proposed restrictions.

A spokesperson for Verizon Wireless, Michael McDermott, told the committee that his company "supports this legislation because it's the right thing to do. We promote the use of hands-free devices in every facet of our business from marketing and sales to our customer communications and public policy initiatives." This plan would be phased in over three years.

Although trying to limit the 110 million people who subscribe to cellular phone service from using their phones without a hands-free device while driving has been a national trend, McDermott said that no state has passed a law to limit motorists talking on hand-held phones while driving.

"Let Missouri, the Show-Me State, tell the rest of the United States they have been shown enough carnage, that they care about the safety of their citizens," Burns said.

But, in the wireless industry, Verizon stands alone in its support of this bill. Lobbyist Doug Gallaway, testified on behalf of Sprint, AT&T Wireless and Cingular in opposition to Campbell's bill arguing the bill "singles out wireless phone use as a specific distraction and places a penalty on the users."

The issue has gained increasing attention from state lawmakers across the country after a study by the National Traffic Safety Administration involving cell phones and traffic accidents.

"I see people using cell phones using cell phones, disciplining kids, putting on makeup, reading, and taking notes," Rep. Carson Ross, R-Blue Springs said, pointing out that "we need to address the whole gamut of issues that could cause people to not be attentive to their driving."

With less than six weeks left in the legislative session and dozens of bills still waiting their turn for House debate, any measure still stalled in committee would appear to have little chance of passage this year.