KMOV: News 4 Investigates: Why Missouri doesn’t have a ban on texting and driving

Posted: May 04, 2016 9:35 AM CDT
Updated: May 04, 2016 9:35 AM CDT
KMOV Staff

Missouri — Some officers say distracted driving is getting worse than drunk driving or speeding.

Officials say distracted driving accidents could leave 10,000 people killed or injured in Missouri in 2016.

Missouri has one of the weakest texting and driving laws in the nation.

Each and every day, Patty Kaelin still misses her sister Sergeant Peggy Vassallo.

In August 2015, the Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Department’s Sgt. Peggy Vassallo was involved in a minor accident at Lindbergh Boulevard and Old Jamestown Road. She was calling dispatch after the wreck when a third car barreled toward her and hit her.

“She just couldn’t make it, you know. The injuries were so bad,” said Kaelin.

Police say the driver, Latonia Waites was distracted, using a phone while at the wheel.

“If you are going to do something like that, you have to realize you are taking a risk and you have to suffer the consequences,” said Kaelin.

And yet it’s a risk many people take every single day.

In 2014, authorities say Illinois banned texting, talking, without using a hands-free device, for drivers of all ages.

News 4 rode along with the Illinois State Police. Officers say this spring, police have written 10,000 tickets and more than 11,000 warnings.

Within minutes of tagging along with the Illinois State Police, driver after driver were breaking laws intended to keep them safe.

Cameras in a News 4 vehicle also easily caught people using their phones in Missouri.

But there’s one big difference on the Missouri side of the river. Right now only people younger than 22 are prohibited from texting and driving. For nearly everyone else, it’s perfectly legal.

Missouri is just one of four states in the entire country that hasn’t banned all drivers from texting and driving.

“I think people know they shouldn’t but they do it anyway. Why? Because it’s legal in Missouri,” said Missouri Senator Jill Schupp.

Schupp says she’s disturbed by the numbers.

Missouri Highway Patrol says in 2015 distracted driving caused almost 19,000 accidents, nearly 8,000 injuries and 113 deaths.

Senator Schupp says texting is a big part of the problem.

“It takes a minimum of five seconds to read a text message and if you’re going 55 mph, that’s the length of a football field that you’ve missed watching the road,” said Senator Schupp.

For many years, including 2016, she and others have proposed bills banning texting and driving, but they’ve always failed.

“I am so disappointed that we can’t get to seem any leg,” said said Senator Schupp.

Vice Chair of the Transportation Committee, Senator Dave Schatz said, “I just disagree with what the outcome might be if we put this in statute.”

In 2010, there was a horrific accident on I-44, a chain reaction involving a pickup, a semi-truck and two school buses that some tried to blame on Senator Schatz’s 19-year-old son Daniel Schatz. Daniel and another teen were killed, and years of lawsuits ensued in part over Daniel Schatz texting behind the wheel in the minutes prior to the accident. All of it is scarring the senator, who says there was no evidence texting was to blame.

“For me, going through that experience and seeing how the lawyers exploited an individual that could have been texting, makes me say I don’t want to put an individual above the age of 21, I don’t want to put them through the same process,” said Senator Schatz.

Senator Schatz believes a ban on texting would be unenforceable. An officer, he says, can’t truly tell if someone is texting or doing something else with their phones. Other laws already on the books, he says, would instead account for someone’s bad actions while driving distracted, like bobbing or weaving between lanes.

“While it sounds good and I believe it in, I think it’s bad for people to do it, I am not in favor of passing a law that ultimately drags people into court,” said Senator Schatz.

Between senators, a political stalemate that either way won’t bring back Daniel Schatz or Sgt. Peggy Vassallo.

“She would want something to be learned from what she went through, I think,” said Kaelin.

As Kaelin and her family wait for justice, they plea for people to put down the phone.

“It’s not worth it, when it comes down to it, it’s not worth it,” said Kaelin.

Senator Schupp says she’s going to try to bring the bill up again in 2017. If you have strong feelings about whether there should or shouldn’t be a ban on texting and driving, contact these senators.

KMOV

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