JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri is one of only two states that does not have a law against texting while driving for those 21 and older.
Back in 2013, lawmakers passed legislation banning texting for drivers under 21, but for anyone older, there’s nothing on the books. Families who have lost loved ones are pleading for the General Assembly to make a change to prevent more tragedies from happening.
“That moment has forever changed our lives due to a distracted driver who was 19 years old and wasn’t paying attention to what was going on in the roadway,” Sarah Douglas from St. Charles County said Monday.
AAA Missouri joined with the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and victim advocates on Monday for AAA’s Distracted Driving Awareness Day.
During the event, MSHP said last year, there were 16,000 distracted driving crashes in the state and nearly 15% of those were directly related to drivers on their cell phones. MoDOT’s Deputy Director and chief engineer Ed Hassinger said the department has noticed an increase in distracted driving.
“We’re seeing that behavior accelerate as we are out there on the road every day,” Hassinger said. “There are more people who are distracted by more things and still trying to operate a motor vehicle on our roadway.”
Hassinger said there have been 22 accidents so far this year involving MoDOT’s equipment.
“We put these big yellow trucks behind them, flashing lights, the attenuators on the back that are the size of a small house and yet people are so distracted they don’t even see those,” Hassinger said. “It’s more than just that big piece of equipment being hit. Those are things that protect those workers who are on the ground every day.”
Dozens of advocates filled the Capitol rotunda Monday, hoping for action from lawmakers. Last month, the Senate passed legislation that would change state statute, banning texting while driving for all ages.
“Being one of two states that doesn’t have a distracted driving bill, we’re going to change that this year, we’ve got too,” Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, said. “We should not be on our phones.”
Bean is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 56 and 61. During the event, he thanked the families affected by distracted drivers for telling their story and testifying in front of lawmakers.
“I once envisioned a life much different than the one I live now,” Adrienne Siddens said. “A life without my husband, Randall, who died because of a distracted driver.”
Randall, 34 at the time, was picking up cones after a biking portion of a triathlon race in Columbia on May 5, 2019, when a car swerved past the police escort and knocked over his coworker and hit the father of three head-on.
“She hit Randall, throwing him 120 feet, slamming into the cone truck,” Adrienne said. “On impact, her car caught fire. Multiple lives were at risk in that one moment all because that woman was looking at her phone instead of the road.”
Stephany Bening lost her husband, Michael, along I-49 in Cass County in May 2021 while grabbing a tub out of the roadway that flew out of his jon boat.
“The main reason I’m here today is because I want to show my kids that even in tragedy you can use your story to change history,” Stephany said. “You don’t have to be a victim, but a victor.”
Bean’s legislation is named after Michael and Randall, known as the “Siddens Bening Hands Free Law.” The bill would prohibit drivers from holding or using their cell phone or recording, posting or sending video while driving. The first offense would be a fine of up to $50 and two points on the driver’s record. Then, the penalty would increase after that.
According to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, last year, more 71 people died in accidents related to distracted driving and roughly 75% of the distracted drivers in those fatal crashes were older than 21.
During debate on the Senate floor, an amendment was added prohibiting police from pulling someone over for only texting and driving. Instead, a person can only be charged if they were stopped for another reason.
Sarah and Warren Douglas lost their daughter Kendall back in May 2018 when she left their house in St. Charles County to drive to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Illinois where she was attending college. Sarah said she was watching the news when she saw there was a bad accident on Interstate 70. After texting Kendall multiple times, she received a phone call no parent ever wants to get.
“Each of you has a photo somewhere on your phone or on your desk,” Warren said. “Look at that photo, look at somebody special, take a look at it and then close your eyes and imagine when you open your eyes that person isn’t there. If that doesn’t change the way you think, I’d be totally surprised.”
The bill is now in the hands of the House, where a committee is expected to vote it out this week. The legislation then heads to the House floor for debate with three weeks left in session.