A retired 30-years sheriff’s deputy is formulating legislation on driving that he’ll file for the next session as a Missouri lawmaker. House Republican Galen Higdon of St. Joseph has two measures he’s planning to sponsor.
One would require anyone getting their first full motor vehicle license at age 18 to have completed at driver safety course. The other would ban the use hand held devices and texting behind the wheel.
Higdon introduced a version of both measures this year, but was unable to push either one across the finish line. The bill calling for a driver safety course hit a snag early on when Higdon had trouble settling on a funding mechanism to cover the $38 million cost.
He says the plan is to add small increases to some existing fees. “I’m going to be looking maybe at a dollar on a driver’s license renewal, a dollar on registration, something that is dedicated strictly for driver’s education in the state of Missouri,” said Higdon.
He says he’ll make sure the bill calls for any hike to a state fee to be approved by voters before it could be collected and appropriated for a driver safety class.
According to Higdon’s plan, the money earmarked for the course would be housed in a fund at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. The school would then disburse money to cover expenses for businesses and schools that provide the driver safety training.
The fund would have a cap, and all excess money would be reallocated for needs such as road and bridge repairs. Higdon says the goal would be for the fund to have an ending balance of $0 at the end of every year.
The driver safety curriculum wouldn’t be required for anyone who already has a full motor vehicle license. Teenage drivers moving to Missouri who have already taken a safety course in another state would be granted a waiver.
Higdon says Missouri is one of only four states without a driver safety course requirement. It’s also one of only three states that allows texting behind the wheel.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arizona and Montana have no restriction on texting and driving, while Missouri allows the practice to those 22-years and older.
Data from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) indicates distracted driving contributed to 16,000 crashes across the state in 2016. Kelly Jackson with MoDOT says accidents involving texting are hard to track and are lumped into the “distracted driving category”.
“The Highway Patrol does tell us that texting and driving crashes are under-reported, because not everybody is going to admit to that when they have a crash,” said Jackson.
After sponsoring a bill this year prohibiting texting by drivers transporting passengers for a fee, Higdon says he’ll file legislation to bar all use of hand held devices behind the wheel for the next session. He contends his constituents favor an outright ban.
“The general public seems to tell me that they think it’s a hazard for people to be on their phone and texting while they’re driving down the road, and I agree.”
If lawmakers passed such a measure, the state could quickly be transformed from one of the most lenient to one of the most-strict in allowing cell phone use in vehicles. Operating a hand-held cellphone while driving is currently banned in only 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Higdon, who was once elected vice president of the Missouri Deputy Sheriffs Association, knows from experience in law enforcement that people will always find ways to avoid scrutiny. “If you’ve got the phone down on your lap, and you’re looking down and texting as you drive, it’s pretty much undetectable unless you slam into something.”
The former deputy with the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department says while he’s looking at testing the legislature’s appetite for outlawing cell phones behind the wheel, he’s happy to see hands free technology run its course.
“If the future legislators find that talking on your cell phone hands free is also a major problems, then they can take that up at a later date,” Higdon said.
Higdon will be entering the final stretch of his term limited eight year run in the Missouri House in 2018.