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Bill would bring stiffer penalties for negligent drivers using cellphones

Should a driver be involved in a crash that kills or injures another person and was using a cellphone at the time be charged with criminal vehicular operation?

State Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, thinks so. He has introduced a bill that would expand the crimes of criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation for drivers involved in a crashes that cause death or harm to others if they were using hands-held phones or electronic devices. Basically, that is a low-level felony.

The bill will be heard at by the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee at 10:15 a.m. Thursday.

The issue of distracted driving has been a hot topic in recent weeks after a trucker using a hand-held cellphone smashed into the back of vehicle stopped at a red light at Lake Elmo Avenue on Hwy. 36 and killed that driver.

Under current state sentencing guidelines, the trucker, Samuel Hicks, 28, of Independence, Wis., could up to four years in prison if convicted.

Under Franke's bill, penalties for death could rise to up to 10 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $20,000, or both.

A separate bill moving through the legislature would make it  illegal to hold a cellphone or other electronic device while driving.If it becomes law, fines would be $50 for the first offense and $225 plus court costs for subsequent offenses, the same scale that is used to punish drivers who are caught texting while behind the wheel.


Bill banning hand-held cellphone use while driving gets hearing Tuesday

The Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives on Tuesday will take up the bill that would prohibit drivers from using hands-held cellphones and electronics.

Proponents of the measure to be discussed at 10:15 a.m. at the State Office Building have been pushing for the law which would make Minnesota the 17th state with such a law.

This is the fourth year a bill that would prohibit drivers from using hands-held devices has been introduced, but so far none of them have advanced out of committee. This year, the bill's authors, which include 40 representatives from both sides of the aisle, are confident it can get to the full House floor for a vote.

"If we can get this bill to the floor, it will pass," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, last month during a rally to kick off the efforts to get the bill passed this year..

The push to get phones and electronics out of the hands of drivers 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 responsible for one in four crashes on Minnesota roads, according to public safety officials. From 2012 to 2016, it contributed, on average, to 59 deaths and 223 serious injuries annually in the state.

Minnesota joins Idaho and Georgia in considering bills that would outlaw hand-held cellphone use by drivers. But in Utah, a similar measure was tabled as lawmakers there felt there were other forms of distracted driving that are just as dangerous, and that it was difficult to strike a balance between public safety and personal freedom.