In July 2023—the Missouri Legislature passed Senate Bill 398, ushering in a new era of road safety. This bill—which prohibits handheld cell phone use for drivers—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. The implications of this legislation are significant, particularly for insureds who have grown accustomed to utilizing their phones while operating a vehicle. The bill goes into effect on August 28, 2023.
Until now, Missouri allowed drivers over the age of 21 to hold their phone—for talking, texting, or surfing the web even—while driving. Senate Bill 398 bans the physical holding or support of any communication device for both commercial and noncommercial vehicle operators. Consequently, drivers will be prohibited from engaging in the following:
- Physically holding or supporting a cellphone with any part of their body
- Typing or reading text messages
- Recording, posting, sending or broadcasting video, including video calls and social media posts
- Watching a video or movie
However, drivers can still do the following:
- Place or receive voice calls utilizing voice-operated or hands-free functions that can be engaged/disengaged with a single touch or swipe
- Talk on the phone, hands-free, utilizing features like built-in phone speaker, in-car Bluetooth, or ear bud/headset
- Send or receive text-based communication through voice-to-text features
- Utilize cellphone GPS navigation and music or podcast functions
While law enforcement agencies will not begin issuing tickets for violations until January 2025, other impacts of the law will start as soon as the law goes into effect.
Specifically, the law will impact insureds who are alleged to have been on their phone and caused a car accident. In Missouri, a defendant’s breach of duty may be established when a defendant violates a statute or ordinance, known as negligence per se. Until now, while plaintiffs could argue that the use of a cell phone was evidence that insured breached their duty of care, they still had to introduce evidence that the cell phone user did not act as a reasonable person, which would be more difficult with the use of cell phone being legal and common. With the new law, holding a cell phone for calling or texting becomes illegal, making it easier for plaintiffs to establish the “duty” element of their negligence claim.
The passage of Senate Bill 398 represents a significant step forward in prioritizing road safety and reducing the risks associated with distracted driving in Missouri, but will impact how negligence claims involving a cell phone are handled going forward.
If you have any questions on the new law or how it will impact your claim evaluation going forward, please reach out.