ST. PAUL, Minn. — A bill to require motorists to use hands-free devices when talking on the phone while driving passed its first committee stop in the Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday after lawmakers heard emotional testimony from several people who lost loved ones in crashes caused by drivers who were distracted by cellphones.
"Members, if we just save one life through passage of this bill, we will have done our jobs. But the data shows we'll be saving many more than just one life," Rep. Frank Hornstein, the House transportation committee chairman and chief sponsor of the bill, said before his panel approved the measure on a unanimous voice vote.
Legislative leaders have said they expect the bill will be enacted with bipartisan support relatively early in the session. It has at least one more committee stop before it reaches the House floor. A Senate committee has a hearing scheduled on a similar bill Wednesday, as well as a separate bill that would steeply increase fines for texting while driving and treat distracted motorists more like drunken drivers when they seriously injure or kill someone.
Greg LaVallee showed lawmakers a large photo of his son, Phillip, who was 19 when he was killed by a distracted driver in 2013 in Otsego. He said his son was an honors student and runner at South Dakota State University, and was generous about helping competitors. He had hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team so he would run 50 to 60 miles per week.
LaVallee said Phillip was on a training run on a sunny day on a flat, straight road when a driver on the phone crossed the centerline, drove through traffic that was moving in the opposite direction, traveled onto the far shoulder of the road, and struck him from behind. He said there were no signs that the driver braked or tried to steer to avoid him.
"Our cars are safer, our roads are safer, everything is safer but drivers are not," he said. "They're driving off the road. And instead of just injuring someone — because they're doing it at full speed — they're killing someone."
Thomas Goeltz testified about his daughter, Megan, and his unborn grandson being killed in 2016 in Stillwater by a distracted driver who veered across traffic and slammed into his daughter's vehicle, which was stopped at a stop sign. Goeltz said he now has a 6-year-old granddaughter who is growing up without a mother.
He said when traveling for business, which he often does, he would tell the granddaughter that he'd wave to her when flying over her house so she could wave back.
"And you know what she said to me shortly after her mother died?" Goeltz said, his voice choking up. "She said: 'Papa, don't wave. When you're in the clouds bring Mama back down for me, OK?'"
The Department of Public Safety says at least 27 of the state's approximately 380 traffic deaths last year were related to distractions of all kinds. Experts testified that cellphone use is the fastest-growing distraction, causing a rising number of deaths and injuries.
Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said 16 other states and the District of Columbia already have hands-free laws. Truckers are already restricted to hands-free devices under federal law. Most of the 16 other states have seen large reductions in fatalities, he testified, averaging 16 percent.
"If you take a look at the number of fatalities we have in this state, and if we can get a 16 percent decrease in the year that follows implementing hands-free, that'll be about 55 people whose deaths could have been prevented," he said.