Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Tuesday that legislation aimed at curbing distracted driving could be among the first measures passed in the Senate this session.
Two proposals — one requiring hands-free devices while using a cellphone and another that would enhance penalties for texting while driving — continued a swift passage through the Senate on Tuesday, advancing after two days of hearings in the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee and closer to a floor vote.
“We’re really putting a lot of pressure on people to stop using your phone while you’re driving — at least in your hand,” Gazelka said in an interview. “For sure the hands-free one I think will pass in the next month, maybe earlier.”
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, relaxed customary committee rules prohibiting signs to allow attendees to bring photos of loved ones killed by distracted drivers. State lawmakers and advocates have been pushing the legislation early this session after a related effort came up short late in last year’s session. Gov. Tim Walz has said that he would sign a distracted driving measure this year if it reached his desk.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, one of the two measures’ sponsors, said Tuesday that his hands-free proposal was imperfect in that it did not bar the use of GPS navigation applications. But if lawmakers can convince more drivers to put down their phones, Newman said, “we will have accomplished 90 percent of what we want to accomplish.”
“There are no guarantees in life, but we can do the best we can,” Newman said when countered by an argument that new laws could lead to more drivers texting to conceal their phones from law enforcement. “I believe we can save lives. We have to do something.”
Under another measure, drivers caught texting while driving would face a fine of $150 for a first offense, $300 for a second offense and $500 for a third or subsequent offense.
Last year, Minnesota law enforcement cited more than 9,500 drivers for illegally texting while driving — up 30 percent from 2017, according to a DPS analysis of court records published in January. A recent Star Tribune analysis of the latest DPS crash data shows that a cellphone or electronic device was a factor in 20 percent of the distracted driving cases where someone was seriously injured or killed.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia now have hands-free laws on the books, and Virginia’s legislature passed a similar measure on Tuesday.
Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said Tuesday that a study of 15 states with such laws revealed that 12 of those states recorded an average 16 percent decline in traffic fatalities since the adopting their laws.