Calling distracted driving a critical public safety issue, Minnesota lawmakers and supporters rallied Thursday in favor of a bill that would prohibit motorists from using hand-held cellphones.
“If we can get this to the floor, it will pass,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, during the rally in the State Capitol rotunda. He noted that House File 1180 and Senate File 837 have bipartisan support among the measure’s 40 sponsors.
For the past four years, lawmakers have tried without success to get a bill out of committee, but this year there appears to be a groundswell of support for making Minnesota the 17th state with such a law. Much of that is coming from families who have lost loved ones in distracted driving-related crashes. On Thursday, they held large portraits of their children, husbands, wives and relatives who have been killed by drivers who were on their phones as they urged legislators to take action.
“Oregon and Washington passed one [last year]. What did Minnesota do? We buried another 70 victims,” said Greg Tikalsky, of New Prague, who lost his father, Joe, when a driver looking at her phone ran him down as he crossed a country road in front of his house to get his newspaper on Oct. 28, 2015. “Without stronger laws, the slaughter on Minnesota roads will continue.”
Advocates from traffic safety organizations, the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota called behind-the-wheel cellphone handling a problem that has reached “epidemic” levels. Distracted driving accounts for one in every four motor vehicle deaths, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The House and Senate bills would not prevent drivers from talking on cellphones. They just don’t allow drivers to hold them or other electronic devices, said Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, the chief author of the House bill. Fines for first-time violators would be $50 plus court costs. Drivers caught a second time would be assessed a $275 fine plus court costs, the same fees for those who are caught texting while driving.
A yearlong campaign in 2011 called “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” saw phone use decline by 57 percent in Hartford, Conn., and 32 percent in Syracuse, N.Y., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Minnesota law, however, is also meant to jump-start a culture change, said Mike Hanson, of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. A stricter law might bring fatality numbers down as has happened with drunken driving, plus send a strong message that driving while holding a phone is not acceptable, he said.
“When you see a person on the phone, honk to get their attention, then put your hand on your heart to tell them that’s not right,” said Rep. Bob Loonan, R-Shakopee. “It’s kind of the ‘Rage of Angels’ telling them to please be more careful.”
In a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted last April, 78 percent of those polled said the penalties for texting or checking Facebook while driving should be equal or more severe than drunken driving. Even more, 79 percent, say it should be illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving.
A note of opposition
Not everybody is in favor of banning hand-held cellphones. Bret Collier, of Big Lake, swam upstream Thursday as he passed out fliers stating that data does not support the notion that hands-free devices actually reduce the number of distracted driving fatalities. Using crash stats obtained from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he said he found that talking or listening to a cellphone accounted for only 2 — or 0.337 percent — fatal crashes in Minnesota in 2015 in which distraction was a factor.
“We need to do something to address the distractions that are causing accidents, but to have a law that makes it so you can be ticketed for driving down the road with the phone held up to your ear, that will cause only a new revenue stream for states, counties and lawyers,” Collier said. “We need to make the penalties harder for distracted drivers. This is not the right way to do it.”
Bills outlawing hand-held cellphones are being debated this year in Idaho and Georgia. But in Utah, lawmakers set aside a similar bill, saying there were other forms of distracted driving such as eating and applying makeup that could be just as dangerous, and that it was difficult to strike a balance between public safety and personal freedom.