UPDATE: Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed a bill, given final approval by the Legislature on Thursday, that restricts drivers using hands-free or voice-activated cellphone technology.
This is a breaking news update. Original story is below.
Three decades into his career as a safety consultant, Tom Goeltz lost his 22-year-old daughter — pregnant with her second child — to a crash caused by a driver who was texting at the moment of impact.
Goeltz and a growing network of Minnesotans who have lost loved ones under similar circumstances will watch Gov. Tim Walz on Friday sign into law a measure restricting drivers to hands-free or voice-activated cellphone technology.
“It’s going to save lives,” Goeltz said Thursday after the Minnesota Senate sent the bill to Walz for his signature.
“There’s a lot of people that have lost their lives in Minnesota because we weren’t successful in years past,” Goeltz said. “More and more people, more and more of our friends have lost their lives and their families have had to join our club that nobody wants to join. Now, we got a little bit of good news.”
Thursday’s 48-12 Senate vote followed House passage earlier this week. Minnesota would join 16 states and the District of Columbia in having laws aimed at curbing distracted-driving deaths. The measure, which will take effect Aug. 1, expands on existing state law that bars texting while driving.
The Legislature also is looking at increasing penalties for texting while driving.
“This isn’t about restricting liberties; it’s a matter of public safety,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, the chief sponsor of the hands-free bill. “This is bipartisan legislation that comes out of months of work between the House, Senate and stakeholders, with the goal of getting drivers to use their phones in a hands-free manner — or put it down.”
Under the new law, drivers would be restricted to using their phones to place calls or send messages via voice-activation.
GPS navigation and podcasts will still be allowed. But, Newman said, “You best have your podcasts and your GPS loaded up and ready to go because you cannot keyboard and you can’t scroll.”
The compromise bill removed a House provision that would have ordered a study of the demographics of those stopped by police under suspicion of violating the law. A previous Senate provision to allow for phones tucked under hijabs or other forms of headwear also was struck from the bill. But Newman said Thursday that the bill did not explicitly prohibit phone use under those circumstances.
The hands-free bill has emerged as one of the chief bipartisan achievements of a legislative session marked by partisan rancor as both chambers work to agree on a budget this year. Sen. Jim Carlson, D-Eagan, has worked for much of the past decade to advance similar legislation.
Before Thursday’s vote, he underscored his strong support for the measure and applauded Newman for his help this session.
“We always kept the end goal in mind here of a clean bill that can be passed by both caucuses,” Carlson said. “This has been a long, long, long process to get this bill to this point.”
Closely watching that process has been Vijay Dixit, whose 19-year-old daughter, Shreya Dixit, was killed in a crash involving a distracted driver in 2007 while she was on her way home from the University of Wisconsin to visit family.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing that so many people have lost their lives and we had to lose so many since my daughter Shreya was killed in 2007,” Dixit said Thursday. “So much time and so much effort has gone into getting this done. This is why I feel somewhat comforted. And at the same time more needs to be done.”
Some lawmakers viewed the prolonged legislative battle as part of a struggle to keep pace with the increasing prevalence of new technology and heightened dependence on cellphones in everyday life.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) crash figures show that cellphones or electronic devices factored into one in five serious injuries or deaths caused by distracted driving in 2016 and 2017.
According to preliminary figures released in April by the DPS, 27 people were killed and 178 were seriously hurt in distracted-driving events last year. Meanwhile, texting-while-driving citations have climbed each year since 2013, rising from 2,177 to 9,545 last year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that most states that passed hands-free laws recorded drops in fatalities within two years.
But both Dixit and Goeltz say their work to promote safe driving will continue. Dixit — whose voice mail signs off with “I drive distraction-free, do you?” — plans to use the memorial fund named for his daughter to pair teenage mentors with elementary students to try to curb a culture of distraction at a young age.
“The best satisfaction is to get our children back,” Dixit said. “That will never happen. But this is an effort so that many more like me will not have to suffer because their lost their child in a crash that was easily preventable and easily controllable.
“It is the future that we are pleased about — that hope that this will put, if not an end, a good amount of pressure on individuals to stay on the road fully undistracted.”