Distracted driving campaign goes public in Missouri

Public health advocates in Missouri are taking their campaign against distracted driving to the public after failing to win support in Jefferson City for a ban on driver cellphone use.

The state already prohibits people younger than 21 from texting behind the wheel, but health advocates want the ban to apply to everyone.

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.

Nearly 30 percent of the 139,752 crashes on state roads in 2011 involved inattention as a “probable contributing circumstance,” the highway patrol reports.

“A texting driver is just as much if not more dangerous than a person who drinks while they’re driving,” Highway Patrol Col. Ronald Repogle.

Missouri legislators approved the texting ban for drivers younger than 21 in 2009, but Repogle noted the difficulties of enforcing it. Thirty-five other states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and Washington, D.C., bar handheld cellphone use.

But Missouri lawmakers have not supported efforts to join those other statesAs part of the initiative, Repogle mentioned an education campaign aimed at new drivers and offered through church groups, plus driver education classes to discourage DWT – driving while texting.

The hospital’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.

“I’m the face of a mother who buried her child,” she said. A more modest proposal to curb cellphone use while driving remains alive in the Capitol. A bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Stouffer, a Napton Republican, would make distracted driving a misdemeanor traffic offense It has received initial Senate approval.