Missouri at standstill on road safety bills
By: Hunter Bassler, Tong Li, Yanran Huang, Elli Fitzgerald
Lori Popejoy wanted something good to come from her son, Adam’s, death. In 2002, 16-year-old Adam was distracted behind the wheel, talking with friends, when he pulled out in front of a pickup truck and died upon impact. Ever since then, Popejoy decided to spend her time advocating against distracted driving to kids Adam’s age.
“Speaking to an auditorium full of kids,” Popejoy said. “I would say ‘I am your mother. This is what your death would do to your mother. This is the pain your mother will feel.’ and, frankly, I think that resonated.”
Popejoy decided that the best way to honor her son’s memory was to save other lives. She created the Attentive Driving Always Matters, or ADAM, program and talked to high school students about the dangers that come with not being aware behind the wheel. She now spends her time focusing on her family while doing the occasional speaking event. Through her 15 years of speaking out, she’s realized that it’s tough to advocate for safe driving in a state like Missouri.
“People are impassioned about this topic,” Popejoy said. “It’s sad to me that those people who have been doing this every single day aren't listened to. And that this group knowledge that they have is not fully attended to by the state legislature.”
Recently, Missouri was ranked 49th in the nation in road safety by the National Safety Council. Along with having no primary seatbelt law, Missouri is also one of four states that does not have a cellphone ban for all ages. And earlier this year in May, a bill defunding sobriety checkpoints passed in the Missouri legislature. When determining these rankings, the NSC looked at different factors that affect road safety, including alcohol impaired driving, distracted driving and seat belts.
Illinois was ranked first in road safety. The NSC said the state is “on track” in a majority of the categories. Missouri has less than half of Illinois’s 12.8 million population. But, Missouri has almost double the number of car crashes per capita compared to Illinois according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
This statistic didn’t surprise Popejoy. When she worked with the Coalition for Roadway Safety, she saw that road safety was not just a local problem, but also a statewide one. Popejoy said that the coalition did all they could concerning infrastructure to prevent accidents, but there was only so much they could do.
“[The coalition] has done what it could do with the highway,” Popejoy said. “Unfortunately, whenever we rely on people to do the right thing, there are the stragglers who are not going to do the right thing no matter what we ask them to do nicely. And that’s where laws come into play.”
But laws intended to prevent distracted driving are hard to come by in Missouri. The Missouri Senate failed to pass the Fair Fare Passenger Safety Act in May this year. The act prohibits drivers who receive a fare from using any kind of device to send text messages. Currently, people over the age of 21 can legally use their cellphone while behind the wheel in Missouri.
Many legislators believe that additional laws are unnecessary, including state Rep. Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville. He said that he voted against the bill because he believes Missouri's Careless and Imprudent Driving law, which targets “reckless” driving as a whole, takes care of the issue. Spencer said that we don’t need any additional laws dealing with the problem. But state Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph believes the exact opposite.
“The public safety institute has done a study of the inattentive drivers causing severe to minor accidents, and they range anywhere from a fender bender to a fatality,” Higdon said. “And if you're looking down at your phone, you look up, you've lost a whole mile sometimes. It's just something we need to start addressing rigidly in the state.”
New York University Associate Professor Diana Silver said that Missouri is not joining the trend of other states that have more specific distracted driving laws.
“There’s very strong evidence, both empirical and on the road, that there is an association between the rise in car crashes and the instances of distracted driving,” Silver said.
Higdon believes passing legislation is first priority. Roadway fatalities have been increasing since 2014, with 949 people killed last year, the most since 2008.
Popejoy believes that improvements will not be made until more legislation is created to specifically address road safety or further penalize distracted driving. She says that the rate of annual road fatalities in Missouri is reason enough to pursue tighter laws.
“This is not a tough thing,” Popejoy said. “You aren't asking someone to give up their firstborn. You're asking them to put their phone down while driving. My child did not come home for dinner, but we want yours to.”
In the future, she hopes people who are not focused on the road think of the price Adam paid.