A Minnesota legislator announced this week that he wants to toughen penalties for distracted drivers who are involved in fatal or serious car accidents.
Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, announced Thursday that he wants drivers who cause injury or death in crashes triggered by distractions to face jail time and pay fines similar to if they were charged with driving under the influence.
"This problem continues to seem like it grows," Osmek said Friday. This would "get people to pay for the damage they are doing to society and to other people's families."
As distracted driving citations climb in the state, legislators on both sides of the aisle are reviving the debate to strengthen these types of laws.
According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, last year 7,357 drivers were cited for texting and driving, nearly a 23 percent increase from 2016. Distracted driving is now the fourth-leading cause of crashes causing serious injuries or death, behind speeding, lack of seat belts and drunken driving.
Efforts to toughen the state's distracted driving laws by making Minnesota the 17th state to forbid drivers from using handheld phones and electronic devices stalled in the Legislature this year, but that's not deterring some lawmakers.
In October, Attorney General Lori Swanson proposed several measures to toughen distracted driving laws in the state, including requiring hands-free cellphone use while driving, increasing penalties for texting while driving and suspending driver's licenses of repeat offenders.
"We need to change the culture around distracted driving and make it not be OK for people to do this," Swanson said in the October news release. "We should apply some of the successful drunken driving reform measures to distracted driving, which has become an epidemic on the roads."
Osmek said he was intentional in proposing a stronger law but not a total ban.
"I don't think [law-abiding people] should have their rights and their freedoms impinged upon by people who are notoriously bad with texting or just simply not paying attention," he said. "The first step is to increase the penalties and get people's attention."
It is illegal in the state for drivers to read, compose or send texts and e-mails, or go online, while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic. This includes sitting in stopped traffic. It also is illegal for drivers with a permit or provisional driver's license to use a cellphone while driving, except to call 911 in an emergency.
Violators get a $50 fine, plus court fees, for the first offense. They'll pay an additional $225 fine (for a total of $275), plus court fees, for second and subsequent violations. But Osmek plans to increase fines for a second or third incident of driving and texting to $750.
Osmek said the existing laws are "very loose."
In 2016, a New Prague driver who was texting when she struck and killed a 79-year-old man was sentenced to four days in jail and ordered to perform community service.
This week, an Oronoco, Minn., woman was sentenced to serve no more than six months in jail after admitting in court to being on her cellphone when she blew through a stop sign at a Dakota County intersection, broadsiding a car and killing its passenger.
"When you are driving and using your cellphone, there is no intent in running people over and killing people, but that doesn't excuse you from the fact that you are doing something that is dangerous," Osmek said. "If you kill someone with a DUI, we know the penalties … you are going to jail for a significant amount of time. This legislation is on par, and I think it fits the crime."