The Minnesota Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday for a bill barring cellphone use while driving unless the phone is being used in a "hands-free" mode.
Although the measure passed 56-10 with bipartisan support, lawmakers still have to work out differences with a similar bill that passed in the House last week. The Senate bill bans most cellphone use while driving, unless the driver is using voice-activated or hands-free technology to talk or send messages. A menu of amendments, including a successful tweak allowing drivers to use phones tucked under a hijab or other piece of clothing, led to several hours of debate.
The House bill makes exceptions for emergency situations and one-touch activation features on cellphones. The Senate version, meanwhile, still allows for the use of popular GPS navigation and traffic apps while driving.
Although hands-free driving legislation enjoys popular support nationwide, some lawmakers acknowledged that they had changed their minds on the need for such a law over the years. Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, described standing over the open caskets of a mother and daughter killed by a distracted driver in his district as "my epiphany moment."
"Going forward we can do better — each of us individually," Senjem said.
Others talked about the need to update driving laws to reflect modern technology.
"To me, cellphones in the 21st century are what electricity was to people in the 19th century and what the internal combustion engine was in the 20th century — the comparison is that it has completely changed our culture," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who spearheaded the measure.
Relatives of Minnesotans killed by distracted drivers have been a major force behind both Senate and House versions.
"It was the families that worked so hard, the families that put such a big effort into this," said Sen. Jim Carlson, D-Eagan, who first tried to a pass distracted-driving bill a decade ago. "It pains me to see them come over and over to committees represent what is probably the worst experience of their lives."
Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a hands-free bill into law if it reaches his desk.