ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota may soon require drivers to use hands-free cellphones, and some lawmakers want to impose bigger fines for drivers who text, and treat distracted drivers more like drunken drivers when they cause serious accidents.
Leaders of the Senate and House transportation committees have authored hands-free bills, and plan hearings this month and hope for floor votes as early as next month. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce forum on Thursday night that they expect the legislation to pass.
Prospects for the tougher penalties, which would need more committee approvals, are less clear.
"Distracted driving is the fastest-growing cause of death and injury on our roads," said House Transportation Chairman Frank Hornstein, who plans to introduce his bill Monday. "The State Patrol tells us that they can't even enforce the texting ban effectively without a hands-free provision."
The Department of Public Safety says at least 27 of the state's approximately 380 traffic deaths last year were distraction-related, about the same as a year earlier. About 14 percent of fatalities and 15 percent of serious injuries have been distraction-related in recent years. Citations for texting-while-driving rose from 1,707 in 2012 to 7,357 in 2017.
Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Newman introduced his hands-free bill Thursday. He said it would be easy to comply, noting that built-in systems are standard on most new cars while a hands-free cellphone mount costs only about $25.
The Hutchinson Republican said he's heard people testify about loved ones killed by drivers on cellphones. He said he knew two people from his district who died that way.
"They're really, really hard stories to listen to," he said.
Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat, had a similar bill that stalled last session, but he said chances now are improved by the new House Democratic majority, support from business groups and growing awareness of tragedies caused by distracted drivers.
"This has worked well in 17 other states where we've had crashes attributed to distracted driving actually being reduced," he said. "So we know this works, it's good policy and we want to make Minnesota the 18th state."
Sen. David Osmek, a Republican from Mound, is co-sponsoring Newman's bill but wants to go further. The bill he introduced Thursday would triple the penalty for texting while driving to $150 for a first offense. He'd make it $250 for a second and $500 for a third. A third offense could mean forfeiture of a phone. It would also mandate that driver's education courses cover the dangers of distracted driving and the laws governing it.
But Osmek said its real teeth would treat drivers using non-hands-free devices the same as drunken drivers in case of accidents that result in injury or death. That could mean up to five years in prison for causing great bodily harm and up to 10 years for causing death.
"I really am very frustrated that people are getting five days in jail, a week in jail, six months," he said. "It's an incredibly small amount of time for the damage that they have done to society."