Over objections from the bill’s sponsor, the House of Representatives amended a bill on Thursday that would make it illegal for anyone who is being paid to transport passengers to use a cellphone while driving.
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, proposed the amendment to make using a phone a secondary offense. Under the amended bill, a driver could not be pulled over because they are using a cellphone, but could be issued a ticket for it if they are pulled over for something else.
“I could not support the bill without the amendment,” Christofanelli said. “I believe it’s designed in such a way that its application is far too broad, given it’s actual, stated intent. I believe people could be unfairly treated and inappropriately stopped in their daily life.”
The House will need to vote to pass the bill before it moves to the Senate.
A distracted driving ordinance in Columbia makes using a cellphone while driving a secondary offense. When the Columbia City Council passed the ordinance in December, Columbia Police Department Deputy Chief John Gordon said officers would not pull over drivers because they are distracted. But, if a driver is pulled over for a traffic violation, cellphone use would be evidence the driver was not practicing “careful and prudent driving,” he said.
The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, worried the amendment would take the teeth out of the bill. Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, shared Higdon’s concerns about the amendment limiting police officers and making the bill less effective.
“If this amendment gets put on it, all you have is a watered-down bill that won’t accomplish what you want it to, and then there’s some people who could be potentially injured,” Phillips said.
Christofanelli said his primary concern is the bill applies to Uber drivers.
“As you know, an Uber driver’s car looks just like your or my car,” he said.
A police officer would not be able to tell if the driver is working for Uber without pulling her or him over, he said, which would give wide authority for police to pull over motorists who may not be Uber drivers.
Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson, shared Christofanelli’s concerns about the broad authority the bill would give police officers to make traffic stops.
Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., D-St. Louis, said “driving while black” is real — that black drivers are pulled over at higher rates than white drivers. In 2016, black drivers were pulled over, searched and arrested at higher rates than white drivers, according the most recent report on traffic stops from the Missouri Attorney General. Police found contraband at higher rates when searching white drivers, however. Franks asked Curtis how the amendment helped.
Curtis said the amendment remo ves “another tool” for pol ice to pull over drivers.
“I think that (the amendment) does allow you more freedom to be able to drive without being stopped,” Curtis said.
After the amendment passed, Franks urged representatives to pass the bill, but said it didn’t go far enough.
“The drivers who get paid to drive, they don’t only drive then,” Franks said. “They drive each and every day.”
He talked about the death of his fiance, Juanita Betts, in 2006. He said they had been arguing, partly because he didn’t like that she talked on the phone while she drove. Betts called him on the morning of Oct. 20, he said, while she was driving to work.
“Me being young, I just start arguing with her,” Franks said. “‘Why are you calling me? You know you don’t pay attention on the road.’ All these different things. And she hung up on me.”
Betts, 19, died that morning when she crashed into a car going the other direction, killing the two occupants of the other car, Sheila B. Brown, 42, and her husband, Leroy Brown, 46, according to a KOMU report.
“These bills may seem insignificant and small, and we may say, ‘Oh, they’re not going to get past the Senate, they’re not going to get anywhere,’” Franks said. “But let’s pay attention to what’s coming before us, because you never know how these bills are going to impact someone’s life. And, no, she wasn’t an Uber driver. She was a driver.”
Supervising editors are Mark Horvit and Gary Garrison.