Drivers who text behind the wheel could face steeper fines, license suspensions and — if they hit and kill someone — up to 10 years in prison.
The tough new penalties are part of a distracted-driving bill that cleared the Minnesota Senate Monday by a vote of 56-9. If the House follows suit and the increased penalties become law, Minnesota would have some of the stiffest sanctions in the nation.
“We are killing people on the roads of Minnesota,” said Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, who sponsored the Senate bill. He said the changes are necessary, “to put some teeth into the laws we currently have.”
But the idea of increasing penalties for texting while driving has seen less progress in the House. Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said it is a complex issue that he would like to vet more thoroughly. The proposal may have to wait for another year, he said.
Hornstein has been focused on a different distracted driving measure that went through a Senate-House conference committee on Monday. That bill, which Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign this week, would make it illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving. Minnesotans would have to use hands-free devices instead.
“We took a giant step forward on preventing deaths and injuries on our roadways,” Hornstein said of the hands-free measure, which would make Minnesota one of 18 states to impose such a restriction.
But for some senators, that doesn’t go far enough.
Drivers who are currently caught texting, sending e-mails or searching the internet must pay $50. The cost for a first offense would triple under Osmek’s bill, to $150. Someone found texting a second time would pay $300, an increase from the current $225 fine.
A third offense within 10 years would could carry a potential $500 fine and a monthlong license suspension.
“It’s time to get your attention,” Osmek said of a third-time texting offense. Drivers facing a job hardship could still apply for a work permit — also called a limited license — to get to work.
Some lawmakers struggled with the Senate provision making it a felony to cause a fatal crash while texting or using a phone. Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, said it equates negligent driving while texting with driving drunk. He said he worried about how a felony conviction for criminal vehicular homicide would change the life of a 17-year-old found to be texting and driving.
But Sen. Karla Bigham, D-Cottage Grove, said currently the laws do not offer justice for grieving families.
“Time and time again,” she said, “we have constituents where there has been a tragedy.”