Minnesota motorists who use their cellphones while driving would face stiff penalties under a proposal that won a key round at the State Capitol Tuesday.
Advocates jammed a House committee hearing Tuesday in support of a measure that would make it illegal to hold a cellphone or other electronic device while driving. They held photos of loved ones killed by distracted driving as legislators debated the measure, which has broad and bipartisan support.
“What is more important, the freedom of this [the phone] or the freedom of life?” said Danielle Wishard-Tudor, who attended Tuesday’s committee meeting. Her brother, Jean Claude Paquier Wishard, 44, was killed in a distracted driving crash last fall on Hwy. 7.
Tuesday’s vote marked the first time in four years the measure has passed out of committee, a sign of growing interest in passing something this year.
Minnesota could become the 17th state (plus the District of Columbia) to adopt such a law. The bill has yet to be given a hearing date in the Senate, where similar bills have stalled in committee in previous years.
On Tuesday, a parade of speakers from the State Patrol, the Department of Public Safety, the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, the Minnesota Safety Council and the Minnesota Trucking Association all lobbied the House Public Safety Committee to pass the bill. The most passionate plea came from Greg Tikalsky, of New Prague, whose father, Joe, was killed when a driver looking at her phone ran him down as he crossed a country road in front of his house to get his newspaper on Oct. 28, 2015.
“I have the burden of representing those who lost a loved one to distracted driving, and so do you,” he said. “It does not have to be that way. Before we send out another funeral notice, let’s send out a birth announcement about a new law that will save lives.”
Several people held photos of two recent victims: Robert Bursik, who was killed Feb. 27 on Hwy. 36 when a trucker who allegedly was texting rear-ended his vehicle, and Phil Ilg, a bicyclist who was killed last June by a teen checking a Snapchat message.
“There are not a lot of times you can pass a bill that makes a difference for everybody,” said Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, one of the bill’s lead authors. The evidence about distracted driving is “indisputable,” he said.
But safety experts say that even hands-free driving leaves drivers distracted.
The National Safety Council said more than 30 studies show hands-free devices are no safer than handheld because the brain remains distracted by the cellphone conversation.
Distracted driving is responsible for one in four crashes on Minnesota roads, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. From 2012 to 2016, it contributed, on average, to 59 deaths and 223 serious injuries annually in the state.
The push to get electronics out of drivers’ hands comes as the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported last week that distracted driving is on the rise. Last year, 7,357 drivers were cited for texting and driving, a 23 percent increase from 2016.
“Distracted driving is the fastest-growing problem on the highways. We have to get a handle on it,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, another of the lead authors on the bill. “We crossed a big hurdle today.”