Family affair Senator's experiences make public safety top prio

Saturday, February 16, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Sen. Morris Westfall knows from personal experience the importance of road safety. Nearly a decade ago, his daughter was seriously injured in a car accident.

So seriously, in fact, that the 62-year-old lawmaker and his wife now have custody of their 3-year-old grandson, Cody Ray, because their daughter is unable to care for him.

From that experience and others, Westfall has become the Legislature's leading advocate for tougher laws on drunken driving and the sponsor this year of a measure to raise taxes for Missouri's transportation system.

Westfall, a Republican from Halfway, about 25 miles north of Springfield, remembers clearly the days in 1993 spent in the hospital with daughter Christi.

"Being in the emergency room at that time, I saw the people who came in as the result of alcohol on the highways," Westfall said.

'Just got to go ahead'

While alcohol was not a factor in his daughter's accident, Westfall remembers an aunt and a cousin's husband who were killed by a drunk driver.

Westfall said he was proud last year that lawmakers finally passed his legislation lowering the blood alcohol limit for drunken driving to 0.08 percent from 0.10 percent. On the down side, his bill to ban open alcohol containers in vehicles appears dead this session.

"Somebody called me a neo-prohibitionist. I don't see myself as an extremist," Westfall said. "You've just got to go ahead with what you believe in, even if people label you."

Another label that would fit Westfall is cowboy.

A copy of the Cowboy's Prayer hangs in his office along with other pieces of Western art. He usually wears cowboy boots to work. He owns a ranch and has taken trail riding vacations for several summers.

"I sometimes think that I was born 100 years too late," Westfall said. "Some of my colleagues would agree."

But Westfall also is concerned about the future, especially when it comes to Missouri's roads.

As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, he has proposed legislation to raise taxes to pay for improving Missouri's transportation system.

So serious is Westfall about the issue that he spent much of last year driving Missouri's back roads and riding a train for the first time in 50 years.

"Maybe I was going someplace and I'd cycle off the beaten path and look at the roads," said Westfall. "The road system was reasonably good when I got here, but the transportation issue is something I've seen as a greater need than many of these social programs. That's just part of my background."

That background includes a father who owned a wholesale business in Bolivar that depended on truck shipments.

"He always said the gas tax and the motor fuel tax was the best tax he ever paid," Westfall said. "I remember him saying that specifically."

A 'calming effect'

Westfall's commitment to safety and transportation almost is tireless, according to those who work with him.

"You're not going to find somebody who is more committed than he is," said longtime friend and colleague Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon. "There's a commonsense approach. Some people get all bent out of shape, but he has a somewhat calming effect. There's no fanfare with him particularly. He is what he is and that's it."

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