Despite widespread support from advocacy groups, law enforcement and Gov. Mark Dayton, a bill prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cellular phones and other electronic devices faces long odds of passing this session and likely will be deferred until next year.
Even in 2018, though, the bill won't be a shoo-in with some in the state House.
The measure would have made Minnesota the 15th state along with Washington, D.C., to outlaw the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.
"The bill is not dead, but it has been seriously wounded," said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Burnsville, one of the bill's chief authors.
Two efforts to amend the contents back into the Senate's omnibus transportation bill have failed, despite a March 30 letter sent by Dayton to Carlson expressing his strong support for the bipartisan distracted-driving bill. Dayton said he supported the legislation due to an 18 percent increase in distracted fatalities from 2014 to 2015 and because distracted driving is now the fourth leading cause of motor vehicle deaths, causing one in four wrecks.
"It is my duty to ensure the safety of Minnesotans, and I strongly believe this bill will help lower the statistics mentioned above," Dayton wrote. "I am assured by Col. [Matt] Langer of the State Patrol that this bill will make Minnesota's roads safer."
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said the bill was "never discussed or asked to be discussed" at a committee hearing.
He has no interest in the bill this year or next.
"Even in the documents that were handed out, there is no clear, hard evidence that it reduces death or injures," Cornish said, adding that no one in his district was clamoring for the bill.
"The only ones that really urged me was the author or someone from one of these coalitions," he said.
As for the 2018 session, Cornish said he isn't interested "unless they can come up with some real hard facts, which they haven't yet."
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he believes the bill deserves a discussion and a hearing next year in the Legislature.
The bill simply arrived too late this year, he said.
"It missed out on the deadline and that was why we couldn't give it a formal hearing," Limmer said. "It has been attempted to be amended onto bills in the Senate, but after you kind of get into it and start understanding it, it triggers a lot of other questions [about] fines, penalties, how to enforce it, that need a full discussion in a committee. We just ran out of time.
"It will more than likely be an issue that will come back to us sometime in January."
Bill co-author Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said it was "bad news" that the measure was not included in the House transportation bill. He pointed out the state has been slow to adopt other measures in the past such as lowering the legal blood alcohol limit for drunken driving to .08 and making not wearing a seat belt a primary offense.
"We've not always had the best history when it comes to transportation laws," Hornstein said. He added, however, that as recently as a few years ago a bill banning the use of hand-held devices probably would not have gotten a hearing, so progress is being made. "The pendulum is swinging in our direction," he said.
Carlson said it's possible the initiative could be inserted into a revised transportation bill if Dayton vetoes the one moving through the process. Carlson said the governor could demand that the ban on hand-held phones be included in any final transportation bill that reaches his desk, but conceded that option has "a very low probability."
The news was disappointing for groups that fought for its passage, including the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, Associated General Contractors, Minnesotans for Safe Driving and the Minnesota Safety Council.
"We were hopeful of moving it through this year," said the Safety Council's President Paul Aasen. "By waiting a year, there will be people in crashes or maybe killed that perhaps we could have prevented if enforcement was stepped up. The bottom line is that we are asking Minnesotans not to drive with their phone in their hand."
The council said it will work over the summer to promote the bill and clear up one misunderstanding, which is that the bill bans all cellphone use by drivers. Under the current bill, hands-free cellphones would be allowed.
Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, one of the chief authors of the House bill, called distracted driving a "horrible situation" and promised "we will be trying again next session."
Staff writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.