ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota motorists would be required to use hands-free devices when talking on the phone while driving under a bill that passed the state House on Monday night, after sponsors said the measure will cut down on distracted driving and save lives.
The House approved the bill 106-21 with bipartisan support, though a few critics said it doesn't go far enough because it doesn't include tougher penalties for texting while driving, which is already illegal in Minnesota.
"There's clear evidence from other states that these types of laws save lives," Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at a news conference earlier in the day. "We've heard so many heart-wrenching stories from Minnesotans about family members they've lost because people are on their smartphones instead of focusing on the road."
A similar bill working its way through the Senate exempts the manual use of GPS navigation systems. The House bill would limit GPS use while moving to one-touch, voice-activated apps such as Google Maps. The bill's chief House sponsor, Rep. Frank Hornstein, said he's confident the differences will get worked out in conference committee, adding that Gov. Tim Walz has indicated that will sign the bill.
Drivers would not need vehicles with built-in Bluetooth wireless systems, Hornstein said. For older cars, he said, hands-free mounts that comply are available online for as little as $9.
The Department of Public Safety says that at least 27 of Minnesota's approximately 380 traffic deaths last year were related to distractions of all kinds. Experts testified during committee hearings that cellphone use is the fastest-growing distraction, causing a rising number of deaths and injuries.
Assuming the bill becomes law, Minnesota would become one of 18 states plus the District of Columbia that require drivers to use hands-free devices while phoning. A separate bill to toughen the state's existing penalties for texting while driving is working its way through the committee process in the Senate. Hornstein said that bill may get heard in the House later.
Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat who chairs the House transportation committee, acknowledged that hands-free does not make phoning while driving completely distraction-free. But he said it would be a "major step forward."
He sponsored a similar hands-free bill last year, but Hortman said Republican leaders who controlled the House back then would not allow a floor vote because it didn't have enough GOP support. Democrats won control of the House with the November elections and Hortman became speaker in January.
Karin Ilg, of New Prague, recalled to reporters how her husband, Phil Ilg, was killed when he was struck on his bicycle from behind by a 16-year-old driver who was focused more on her phone than on the road. Ilg said she has been cutting up his bike and handing out small pieces — like one that she held up — to every 16-year-old she can "as a reminder not to text and drive. ... The time is now for us to get this going and to have this as law."