Legal experts discuss possible implications of new Columbia distracted driving law

Legal experts discussion possible implications of new Columbia distracted driving law

COLUMBIA, Mo. - UPDATE: Legal experts said Tuesday they were worried that the city's new distracted driving law is both too broad and vague.

"It certainly seems to invite more pretextual stops and more stops for extremely minor conduct," said local attorney Dan Viets, who is also a member of the mid-Missouri Civil Liberties Association. "For instance, turning one's head away from the path of travel to observe things in the vehicle or outside the vehicle. That could be necessary for safety purposes."

The intention behind Columbia's new ban is clear: to reduce or eliminate traffic deaths due to distracted driving.

"The last thing any of us would want to do is carelessly take someone's life because we took our eyes from the road," said Ward 2 councilman Mike Trapp.

Deputy Chief John Gordon said at Monday night's City Council meeting that the violations are secondary laws, which means an officer could not pull someone over just for using their phone. They would have to be driving erratically first, a primary law, and then the officer could observe the distracting evidence.

Viets said the intentions are commendable but it goes beyond what is reasonable and could be subject to a constitutional challenge.

"When someone is involved in a serious traffic accident and prosecuted under this ordinance and their future, reputation and money is at stake, we very well may see that constitutional challenge go forward," he said.

Without a dedicated police traffic unit, enforcement could be difficult. Trapp said that the law would have more impact once there's enough police to enforce it, but thinks it is an important educational component for now.

Ward 4 councilman Ian Thomas echoed the importance of using the ordinance as an educational tool.

"Although it does increase penalties for people, the main benefit will be people realizing how dangerous it is and how important it is to put down the phone while you're driving," said Thomas. "By letting people know that a judge will take this into consideration, if there is dangerous driving that does put the driver and other people at such high risk, a lot of people will voluntarily comply with this."

The addition of these targeting distractions increases the penalties for the violation and shifts the burden of proof from police onto the driver, making it easier for a judge to consider the fines.

ORIGINAL STORY: In a unanimous vote Monday night, Columbia's city council approved new laws to reduce distracted driving.

The ordinance change was originally on the consent agenda, which means it would have gotten no discussion Monday. Mayor Brian Treece was one of the council members who asked to take it off, saying he did not want to change law without having some public debate.

The change expands the definition of careful and prudent driving, specifically targeting distraction behind the wheel. That includes writing, reading, entering info into a GPS or even just turning your head away from the road.

It's a part of the city's move to eliminate traffic deaths by 2040.

National highway statistics show that 10% of all fatal crashes in 2015 were caused by distraction.

In Columbia, from 2012 to 2016, it accounted for just one of 31 fatal crashes, and 16% of all crashes in that time.

ABC 17 News spoke to councilman Ian Thomas before Monday's meeting.

He said he was at first upset that state law preempted them from banning texting while driving. It's illegal for those under 21 to do so.

However, Thomas said the city ordinance is actually broader than just cellphone use and may be more effective.

Several lawmakers have prefiled bills to make texting and driving illegal for all drivers.

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