A proposal that would make it illegal to hold a cellphone or other electronic device while driving in Minnesota may get to the House floor for a vote after the measure cleared a powerful committee.
Thursday’s passage on a majority voice vote marked the furthest the measure has advanced in four years. It came after supporters of the “hands-free” bill scolded lawmakers for holding the measure into the final days of the session, which ends May 21.
“It’s selfish for you to promote your agenda while we bury our loved ones,” said Sylvie Tikalsky, 18, whose grandfather was killed in a 2015 crash involving a distracted driver. “Move this bill to the floor.”
Despite being approved by the House Ways and Means Committee, the bill still has to be scheduled before a House floor vote can be taken, said Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, chief author in the House. In the Senate, where a companion bill is stuck in committee, leaders have not shared advocates’ urgency.
“The cellphone bill is losing some steam. It’s like Sunday liquor where it took a lot of years to get it done,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said earlier this week, hinting that the Senate bill may not get a hearing. “We all acknowledge it’s a problem, but the solution is what we haven’t agreed upon yet.”
More than 1,900 people responded to an unscientific poll Gazelka posted on his Facebook page to test support for the bill. More than 80 percent were in favor.
Opposition was expressed at the House hearing. Bret Collier, of Big Lake, said the focus should be on strengthening the current law that forbids texting, e-mailing and accessing the internet while behind the wheel.
“The problem is not holding the phone to your ear and talking,” he said. “If you’re going to pass any legislation to actually reduce cellphone-related driving deaths, let’s pass something that will actually do something.”
With the deadline looming, members of more than 20 families, some holding pictures of loved ones, marched to Gazelka’s office after the House committee vote, hoping to persuade the senator to allow the bill to be heard in that chamber. “The Senate needs to get their act together and get this to the floor,” said Thomas Goeltz, whose pregnant daughter, Megan, 22, was killed in 2016.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he expects to hold a caucus to gauge support for the bill, which has 40 authors from both parties. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign it.
With 25 percent of crashes and 20 percent of motor vehicle fatalities in Minnesota attributed to distracted driving, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, called distracted driving the fastest-growing cause of death and injuries on the roads.
This month, Georgia became the 16th state to pass a hands-free bill. In the 15 other states that forbid motorists from using handheld phones, fatal crashes have dropped by an average of 16 percent within two years, according to the Minnesota Safety Council. In Minnesota, that would mean 53 fewer fatal crashes a year, said Mike Hanson, who heads the Office of Traffic Safety with the state Department of Public Safety.