A small group of Minnesotans stood alongside lawmakers Monday and gripped portraits of loved ones lost to distracted drivers, in what has become a somber ritual inside the State Capitol.
But what has been a decadelong push for some moved to its closest point yet to becoming law later in the day. By a 106-21 vote, the House approved a measure Monday night requiring drivers to use hands-free technology while making phone calls or sending text messages.
If the measure becomes law, Minnesota would join 16 states and the District of Columbia in banning cellphone use by motorists unless they use active hands-free technology while they drive.
Watching closely was John Dudley, whose son, Andrew, was killed five weeks before he was set to graduate from high school in St. Louis Park. Karin Ilg joined him, describing how she now hands out pieces of the wreckage from her husband’s fatal bike collision to remind teens of the consequences of taking their eyes off the road.
And Vijay Dixit again returned to the Capitol, where he has called for change for so long that he refers to himself as the “senior citizen” of grieving relatives.
“It happens to anyone — it happens to me, it happens to many of my friends and it happens to you if you don’t take any action,” Dixit said before the House vote. “I don’t want you to suffer what we suffered.”
Dixit’s daughter, Shreya Dixit, was just 19 and a University of Wisconsin sophomore studying international business when she was killed while driving from Madison back home to visit her family.
As he spoke, Vijay Dixit pointed to a graph charting the number of Minnesotans lost to traffic fatalities in recent years. He also held a portrait of Shreya: “This is my daughter — this is the face of that person who I am grieving for,” Dixit said.
If the measure becomes law in some form after the Senate takes it up later in the session, Minnesota would join a growing cadre of states and local jurisdictions taking up the challenge of driving habits in the age of hand-held technology. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz supports the legislation.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety crash figures show that cellphones or electronic devices factored into one in five serious injuries or deaths caused by distracted driving in 2016 and 2017, the most recent data available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that most states that passed hands-free laws recorded drops in fatalities within two years.
“We know this bill saves lives,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We rarely have an opportunity to pass legislation with such a direct correlation with the saving or reductions in fatalities and injuries on the roadways.”
The House bill includes exceptions in emergency situations and allows drivers to use one-touch activation features on their cellphones. The Senate version, meanwhile, still allows for the use of popular GPS navigation and traffic apps while driving.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said that the GPS concession came following concerns from some Senate colleagues about restricting access to apps used for navigating traffic.
Though some State Patrol officials preferred that GPS usage be restricted alongside phone calls and text messaging, Newman said law enforcement leaders placed a priority on getting some form of hands-free legislation passed this session.
“Most of the violations occur because of making a telephone call or texting,” Newman said. “A very small percentage would be GPS. So if we can pass a bill and we can take care of the vast majority of the problem, let’s take it.”
Hornstein acknowledged that the measure would not eliminate all forms of distraction, but both he and Newman described the legislation as an important step toward shifting cultural norms and discouraging the use of cellphones while driving.
“We have emphasized throughout this project that hands-free is not distraction-free,” Hornstein said. “And we believe this is a major step forward because the data does indicate numerous studies that fatalities have been reduced. But really, the bottom line is if you drive, don’t use your phone.”