Editorial Roundup: Missouri

Kansas City Star. September 7, 2023.

Editorial: Missouri finally banned texting and driving. That’s not the only deadly tech in cars

Missouri lawmakers took an important step toward safer streets and highways by passing the Siddens Bening Hands-Free Law, finally making it illegal to hold or support a phone while operating an automobile. That means no more one-handed driving while clutching a phone to your ear, bracing the steering wheel with your knees as you tap out a text message, or — really, this happens — holding up the camera to shoot a quick TikTok for your followers as you dart down the road.

This commonsense safety measure was already in place for drivers 21 and younger in the state, so we have to ask: What took Missouri so long to come into the 21st century? Kansas started enforcing a similar law all the way back in January 2011, just four years after the introduction of the first Apple iPhone, and it wasn’t the first state to do so.

It’s a simple reality that government lags behind the blinding speed of technological innovation, which will always outpace society’s ability to keep up. Who can forget then-84-year-old Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch asking Facebook SEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 how the social network remained free to its users? “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied, condescendingly.

Yes, we know: We elect lawmakers, not tech futurists. Nobody expects our leaders to foresee the potential dark side to every innovation. But we suggest that Missouri and Kansas legislators turn their attention to these potentially hazardous features that are already installed in many of the cars and trucks zipping alongside us on our roadways:

Touchscreen controls

It’s illegal to watch video while operating an automobile in both states, but screens in dashes are becoming standard equipment. As of 2018, all new cars sold in the U.S. must have backup cameras connected to a display for the driver, and many if not most of those screens double as controls for various features. In some models, they just run the stereo, but other manufacturers have made them central to the car’s operation.

“Touchscreens are a problem in cars,” said Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini. He should know. He’s one of the original designers of Apple’s principles of interaction between humans and computers beginning in the 1970s. His website AskTog.com is full of examples of why tech user interfaces succeed or fail

“I drive a Tesla, which has a very large touchscreen that you use for many of the controls,” he said. “I find I’m constantly having to take my eye off the road. When you’re driving, hazards are often less than one second away. So if I’m looking down at a screen for even three seconds at a touch control, that’s a really dangerous activity.”

Automakers know that. Brands such as Hyundai, Nissan and Porsche have been scaling back their use of touch controls in some of their offerings. But almost every function in a new Tesla Model 3 is accessible only via the 15” tablet that juts from the middle of the dash. And despite its non-glare coating, it isn’t immune to the sun. There’s a reason third-party sellers offer matte screen overlays.

The 2024 model of the Cadillac XT4 SUV, manufactured at General Motors Fairfax Assembly and Stamping in KCK, boasts a curved 33-inch screen that stretches to the passenger seat. And Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant builds the wildly popular F-150 pickup, available with a vertical touchscreen that sticks up over the top of the dashboard. Auto buyers like these infotainment systems, and it’s difficult to see how manufacturers could be persuaded to quit offering them.

‘Self-driving’ systems

Prodded by shipping giant Walmart, the Kansas Legislature pushed through a bill to allow autonomous trucks on the state’s roads at the end of the 2022 session — in a “gut and go” move, stripping language out of an unrelated bill and taking over its number at the last minute. Gov. Laura Kelly signed it.

But regardless of proponents’ claims, safe and efficient driverless automobiles are still not ready for prime time. Just last month, California ordered General Motors to take some of its Cruise autonomous taxis off San Francisco streets after high-profile incidents involving collisions, traffic snarls and one cab that took a nosedive into freshly-poured concrete.

Many academic researchers — not businesses with products to sell — warn that safe autonomous vehicles could still be decades away. Carmakers should have to meet extraordinary standards of proof before consumers take such a scary leap of faith.

Over-reliance on safety alerts

Related to the previous two points: Newer cars offer multiple cameras, blind spot sensors and electronic eyes that keep you from crossing over the center line. They’re designed to let you know about hazards you might not notice — but they can also lull you into a false sense of security, making you think it’s OK to take your full attention off the road.

These conveniences can also confuse drivers more than help. Some insurers, such as Progressive, recommend that motorists even disable certain tech assistance in their cars, especially those intended to make it “safer” to use entertainment systems.

High-powered headlights

Especially If you drive a sedan or hatchback, you’re probably all too familiar with being blinded from behind by the new breed of blue-white headlights that use LED or other high-intensity lamps. They’re especially a problem on pickups and SUVs, which show no signs of slowing down as the most popular automobiles on the road.

This is a fundamental safety hazard that should have been curtailed long ago. It took until 2022 for U.S. highway safety regulators to allow manufacturers to use “adaptive driving beam headlights” — technology that automatically dims the light when it hits another car. But there’s still a gap of several years’ worth of automobiles now sporting dangerous, white-hot bulbs at too high an angle for other drivers.

Personal responsibility time: If you see your headlights hitting the rear window or side mirrors of the car in front of you, you’re putting that driver in harm’s way.

Ultimately, it should be up to automotive manufacturers to provide proof that this new wave of technology makes driving vastly less dangerous than with admittedly imperfect humans behind the wheel. But the last thing our leaders should do is allow us civilians to become crash test dummies while Big Tech hammers out the details.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September 10, 2023.

Editorial: Put Missouri’s referendum process out of reach of the politicians who abuse it.

Whatever happens with current efforts to get an abortion-rights referendum on Missouri’s statewide ballot next year, one thing is already clear: The process this state uses to approve such ballot measures is hopelessly inadequate to this era of scorched-Earth partisan politics.

Two sitting statewide Republicans have abused their authority within that system in ways that are so cynical as to preclude even the pretense of good-faith debate. Like it or not, we live in a time in which prominent elected officials are willing to scuttle core conventions of democracy in order to win immediate political fights. They do it openly, and their voters reward them for it.

In such an era, the mechanics of putting a question to the voters should ideally be taken out of the hands of partisans who would shamelessly pervert the whole process and put into the hands of nonpartisan actors.

Government by referendum isn’t the best way to do things — voters elect representatives for a reason — but the Missouri Legislature in recent years has moved so far right of even its generally conservative constituents that ballot measures have become a necessity.

On Medicaid expansion, the minimum wage, marijuana and other issues, the voters have repeatedly used ballot measures to press their will, stepping around a Republican legislative majority intent on thwarting it.

Why those same voters keep sending those same lawmakers back to Jefferson City is a complicated question that likely involves the majority’s gerrymander powers and general partisan tribalism among voters today.

In any case, ballot measures have become an important tool to implement the public’s policy wishes when the Legislature refuses to. (Which, incidentally, is why the Legislature is currently trying to make it more difficult to pass ballot measures.)

Missouri’s process for getting a referendum on the statewide ballot involves several elected officials. The state auditor must calculate what the proposed referendum would cost the taxpayers if it passes. The attorney general must certify the auditor’s report.

And the secretary of state must come up with a written summary of the proposal to go on the ballot — using wording that, according to statutes, must be “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.”

The problems with that system in this era of power politics have been starkly demonstrated in the battle by abortion-rights advocates to roll back Missouri’s extreme new abortion ban.

Of the three elected officials in the referendum process, only state Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick has carried out his statutory duties in good faith on this issue. Fitzpatrick, an anti-abortion Republican, delivered an audit concluding that, should a referendum restore abortion rights to Missouri, it would have no fiscal impact on the state budget. Obviously.

But Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who is seeking a full term in that office in next year’s election, decided that rather than do his duty and certify the audit, he would score some political points on the right with an unprecedented stunt: He rejected the audit, and insisted that the actual cost to taxpayers would be in the multiple billions of dollars, based on lost revenue from unborn future taxpayers.

That would be an utterly baseless auditing standard even if Bailey had the legal authority to impose it — which, as the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled in July, he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s ballot language — which, remember, is statutorily required to be unbiased in its wording — would ask whether Missourians support a referendum to “allow for dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions.”

The abortion-rights petitioners are suing, and Ashcroft will probably lose (would any sentient judge actually deem that wording to be unbiased?). But just by picking that fight, Ashcroft has already managed to stall the process to the disadvantage of the petitioners. As did Bailey. That, clearly, was the point.

This kind of abuse of the process isn’t limited to the abortion issue. Ashcroft, who is running for governor next year, has engaged in this kind of mischief before with other ballot measures.

And Bailey is re-using his imaginary-fiscal-issue stunt on a pending gun-control ballot measure, baselessly claiming it will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars due to increased crime that he says will result from having fewer guns on the street.

All serious data indicates the reverse is true. But this isn’t about facts, it’s about performative politics to woo the Republican base.

Public officials like Bailey and Ashcroft always wear two hats: They are politicians who must take into account how their actions will be received by the voters, but they also have specified statutory duties that are supposed to be unaffected by politics.

Some public officials take that division seriously and carry out their duties in good faith (as Fitzpatrick has). But especially on today’s political right, where the cheap allure of populism has largely replaced what used to be principled conservatism, that good faith is too often discarded as inconvenient to the immediate political imperatives of the office-holder.

We like an idea recently promoted by veteran Missouri journalist Phill Brooks in the Missouri Independent: Take the ballot-language duties away from the elected secretary of state and put it in the hands of the Missouri Ethics Commission, an appointed bipartisan panel, which, as Brooks notes, “has a long history of dealing with difficult political questions.”

While we’re at it, let’s get the attorney general out of that process as well, because the current officeholder has shown such zeal for abusing it.

These are good suggestions that will, of course, never happen under Missouri’s current political leadership — which, after all, benefits from the corruption of the current system. Missourians of all political stripes should be offended by that corruption, but as lawmakers here demonstrate again and again, the popular will doesn’t interest them when it isn’t in their own political interest.

In fact, the only plausible way to reform the referendum process today would be … by referendum.

Who knows? Stranger things have happened, and these are strange times.