Michael Bening died on the side of a Missouri highway in front of his 8-year-old daughter after exiting his car and being hit by a suspected distracted driver in May 2021.
“Something happened to Dad, and he’s not coming back,” the young girl told her mother in a fateful phone call.
Since then, stay-at-home mom Stephany Bening has had to carry on with their two young children – and without their father.
“I’ll never forget the questions my kids asked me,” the Raymore resident told The Heartlander this week. “The first question my daughter asked me was, ‘How are we going to have money now that Daddy is gone?’ My son’s question was, ‘Who is going to teach me how to drive the jon boat? Daddy said he would, but he’s not here.’”
Remarkably, the driver was convicted of only a misdemeanor, and sentenced to pay a fine of $2,000, since there was no law against cell phone use while driving in Missouri.
Now there is. And the new law carries the Bening name.
On July 9, Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 398, which in part creates the Siddens Bening Hands Free Law. It outlaws the use of handheld electronic communication devices while driving – everything from texting, emailing, surfing, engaging in phone calls or just holding the phone or other devices.
It also makes Missouri the 49th state to ban texting while driving for all ages. Montana is now the lone holdout.
Once the new law goes into effect Aug. 28, warnings will be issued to distracted drivers until 2025. After that, officers will enforce $150 fines for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders may face harsher penalties.
Bening says it is no coincidence to her that SB 398 goes into effect on that particular date, which correlates to one of her favorite biblical scriptures and her mission. Romans 8:28 reads, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
Bening says she imagined the driver’s court date would be the worst day of her life, as she prepared to give her victim’s testimony. But it ended up being what she calls one of the best days of her life – thanks in large part to her faith-filled heart.
During her sister-in-law’s testimony, she looked over and noticed streams of tears falling down each of the defendant’s cheeks.
“When I got up for my time to share my statement, I shared what I have done with our story the last couple of years. I talked to the judge and said, ‘I don’t know how (the driver) is feeling right now, but I want her to know that since day one I have been praying for her and her household to know Jesus and know how much He loves them, even in this.’
“Then I lost it for a minute and said, ‘Judge, I have one more really important thing to say. I just want to say on behalf of my children that we forgive you and hold nothing against you.’”
After her statement, Bening says she turned around and requested a hug from the woman who had accidentally killed her husband.
“Her attorney said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never been at a court date where someone actually hugs my client in the middle of court.’ It was a powerful moment. There was lots of remorse on her side, and obviously lots of forgiveness on ours. What is really cool is that I am going to meet her mom for coffee next week. It is a God story on so many levels.
“I told my kids at that point, it became a declaration in our home that God is going to use our story to change the world. There were times where the Enemy would make you doubt that. But I think it’s going to be beautiful. What I think would be the coolest thing is for people to come up to my husband in heaven and say, ‘I am here because your wife and kids told me about Jesus.’ I just think it would be the most amazing thing ever.”
Michael Bening was headed to the lake with his young daughter at the time of the accident and had exited his vehicle to retrieve a tote that flew out of his boat. Stephany Bening says the driver acknowledged to police that she’d been looking down at her cell phone and was not paying attention to the road.
Even in her unimaginable grief, Bening assured her children God had their backs and He was pre-building a testimony for the benefit of everyone involved in this unfortunate tragedy.
“I wanted to raise victors, and not victims. I wanted to demonstrate that to my kids and the friends and family I know are around me.”
Bening feels God uses certain tragedies to change the course of history. In the wake of her husband’s passing, she joined a hands-free driving coalition and went to bat in Jefferson City to spread awareness and share her concerns with lawmakers.
She says a small fine is a step in the right direction, though she hopes the law is enhanced in the future.
Michael Bening died on a stretch of I-49 in Cass County. The other name on the state’s new hands-free law, according to KZRG, honors Randall Siddens, 34, of Columbia, “who died after a truck driver who was video chatting and speeding hit him while he was collecting traffic cones in May of 2019.”