Late last month, dozens of people rallied at the State Capitol to implore Minnesota lawmakers to save lives. Many held portraits of loved ones lost in vehicle crashes — their lives taken because other motorists were distracted by the use of mobile phones while behind the wheel.
The pleas of those grieving friends and family members deserve a legislative response. A bill that would ban all handheld use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving should be passed this year.
Co-authored by Reps. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, and Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the proposed bill has attracted interest from both parties. House File 1180 and Senate File 837 have bipartisan support among 40 sponsors, and several cosponsors have signed on in the last 10 days.
Those who rallied in support of the bill represent a small portion of those affected by distracted driving. Advocates for traffic safety groups such as the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota called behind-the-wheel cellphone handling a problem that has reached "epidemic" levels. And the state Department of Public Safety reports that distracted driving is to blame for 1 in 4 vehicle crashes across the state.
The proposed legislation would not prohibit drivers from talking on cellphones. It would prevent them from holding a phone to their ear, requiring any device use to be hands-free. Motorists could still use their smartphones on speaker mode, through a Bluetooth connection within the car or with a single earbud or earphone — but only if they use the device with one touch.
Penalties for violations under the proposed law are modest: $50 plus court costs for a first violation, and $275 plus fees for a second. In our view, the fines should be larger to provide a stronger deterrent. That's consistent with a 2017 Star Tribune Minnesota Poll that found 78 percent of Minnesotans believe penalties for texting or checking social media while driving should be equal to or more severe than those for drunken driving, while 79 percent said talking on a cellphone while driving should be illegal. Should Minnesota pass a hands-free law, it would become the 17th state to adopt the cellphone limitation.
"Oregon and Washington passed one [last year]. What did Minnesota do? We buried another 70 victims," Greg Tikalsky, of New Prague, said at last month's rally. Tikalsky lost his father, Joe, when a driver looking at her phone ran over him as he crossed a road in front of his house in 2015.
For the past four years, lawmakers have unsuccessfully attempted to get a similar hands-free bill out of committee for a full floor vote. But this year ought to be a turning point. It's high time that Minnesota lawmakers listen to the voices of survivors and victims of collisions that can easily be avoided if motorists focus on the road ahead.