In the wake of statistics related to distracted driving, Missouri joins 27 other states banning the use of phones while driving, unless in hands free mode. The bill which became law was drafted in response to a Missouri Coalition of Road Safety report showing over 380 fatalities in Missouri involving a distracted driver between 2017 and 2021. On August 28, 2023, the Siddens Bening Hands Free Law went into effect. It prohibits individuals who are driving from holding or supporting any electronic communication device. This prohibits writing, reading, or sending any text-based communication while driving. Essentially it prohibits communication on any electronic device unless the driver is using a hands-free function. The law does not apply while lawfully stopped or parked.
However, drivers still can place or receive calls using a voice-operated or hands-free function that can be engaged with a single touch or swipe. Drivers can obviously talk on the phone using any hands-free function or headset and send text messages from voice to text. Drivers can also have the phone on and in use while driving for GPS navigation, music or podcasts.
Many employers who issue cell phones to employees and/or rely on employees to use phones have sent information to employees regarding the new law in an effort to insulate themselves from violations and to further compliance with the law.
Interestingly, the police cannot enforce the law until January 1, 2025, and when enforced, it can only be enforced as a secondary offense. That means that you have to commit another offense and cannot be pulled over solely for being on the phone. The citations result in $150.00 for the first offense, $250.000 for the second offense in 24 months and $500.00 for the third. However, they can issue warnings between now and 2025.
There are also immediate effects on civil lawsuits, even if the law is not being enforced for a few years. Before this law was passed, if lawyers had clients who were involved in accidents and on the phone while driving, arguments could be made that talking on the phone while driving is legal and it does not mean you are distracted or were not exercising the highest degree of care while driving. For years, we have argued to that not only is it legal, but that we all do it, and you are not negligent simply because you were on the phone.
Now, if you are physically on the phone and therefore violate the current law, such violation can be the basis of a negligence per se claim. Once the law is enforced, the issuance and payment of the ticket on the issue will also play into supporting these negligence per se claims. There will no longer be the defense that you were exercising the highest degree of care and talking on your phone and driving.
Another aspect to this is whether or not the use of a phone while driving will provide a basis for punitive damages. Some states have found that such behavior does not meet the state of mind requirement for punitive damages-as a matter of law. On the other hand, you can imagine circumstances where a court finds the behavior could be sufficient to meet said standards. Consider a case where the Defendant is a professional driver and/or is on the phone while driving, while doing other reckless behavior such as running a red light. Cell phone usage becomes a factor now in this analysis and may be part of a punitive damages claim if the driver consciously pursued a course of conduct knowing it created a substantial risk of significant harm to others.