Distracted driving campaign goes public in Missouri

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Public health advocates in Missouri are taking their campaign against distracted driving to the masses after failing to win support in Jefferson City for a ban on driver cellphone use that goes far beyond the state’s current law prohibiting people younger than 21 from texting behind the wheel.

A group that included a trauma surgeon, the superintendent of the Missouri Highway Patrol and the mother of a teen driver killed in a highway crash gathered Wednesday at University Hospital to raise awareness about the dangers of using cellphones and performing other tasks — from teeth brushing to reading the newspaper — while driving.

The Highway Patrol reports that nearly 30 percent of the 139,752 crashes on state roads in 2011 involved inattention as a “probable contributing circumstance.”

“Driving is a full-time job. It requires all of our attention,” said Highway Patrol Col. Ronald Repogle. “Not just our physical abilities, but also our mental attention .... A texting driver is just as much if not more dangerous than a person who drinks while they’re driving.”

Missouri legislators approved the texting ban for drivers younger than 21 in 2009, but Repogle said he favors a full ban, noting the difficulties of enforcing it on young drivers. Thirty-five other states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and Washington, D.C., bar handheld cellphone use among drivers.

But Missouri lawmakers have not supported efforts to join those other states — even as the National Transportation Safety Board cited a horrific Missouri highway wreck in pushing for an all-out ban on cellphone use by drivers. In that case, a 19-year-old pickup truck driver caused a chain collision on Interstate 44 near St. Louis in August 2010, with two school buses packed with high school band members crashing into the wreckage. The pickup driver and a bus passenger died, and 38 other people, mostly students, were injured.

Repogle mentioned an education campaign aimed at new drivers and offered through church groups and driver education classes to discourage DWT — driving while texting.

The university’s Frank L. Mitchell Jr. M.D. Trauma Center is starting even earlier, with an outreach effort targeting fifth and sixth-graders, and by extension, their parents and older siblings who drive those children.

“It gets them while they’re young, so they can know what behavior to avoid,” said James Stowe, trauma prevention coordinator at the Columbia hospital.

The Decide to Drive campaign is part of a larger effort by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and U.S. automakers. Students are encouraged to become Decide to Drive “detectives” and to alert adults about their risky behavior.

Lori Popejoy, a University of Missouri nursing professor, described how her 16-year-old son Adam and a passenger died in a 2002 Columbia car crash likely caused by momentary driver inattention. A niece and nephew of Popejoy’s also died in separate, unrelated car crashes over a six-year period.

“I’m the face of a mother who buried her child,” she said. “When our family gathers for holidays, it’s always with the underlying sadness that our children are dead.”

While her son wasn’t using a cell phone at the time, Popejoy said the problem of distracted driving is exacerbated among young drivers who consider their mobile phones indispensable.

“The cellphone is just such a part of their lives,” she said. “They don’t even think about it.”

A more modest proposal to curb cellphone use while driving remains alive in the Capitol. A bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, would make distracted driving a misdemeanor traffic offense.

The bill, which has received initial Senate approval, defines the offense as failing “to give full time and attention” to the operation of a motor vehicle, failing to maintain a proper lookout; or engaging in any other activity “which causes the operator to be distracted from the primary mission of driving.”

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