The need for regulation of mobile-device use while driving grows more critical by the day, and it’s encouraging to see converts at the Minnesota Legislature who previously opposed such restrictions.
In an ideal world, the obvious danger posed by devices that take eyes off the road would result in self-imposed discipline among drivers. Sadly, that has not happened, and the carnage on the roads, the tragedy of needless deaths and the horrific injuries continue to mount.
Spare us the lectures about distracting conversations with passengers, drivers who feel on the floor for dropped items, makeup appliers, food eaters and all the rest. They pale in comparison to the documented risks posed by someone who has taken hands and eyes off the road to send a text, dial a phone, livestream on Facebook and every other conceivable mobile use.
The Legislature, after years of debate and nibbling around the edges, is close to consensus that handheld use of phones — for whatever purpose — must be prohibited. Instead, through H.F. 50, drivers may use devices hands-free. That’s a less-than-perfect solution, but it strikes a needed balance. It’s true that even hands-free engagement presents something of a distraction. But that distraction is compounded when a hand is off the wheel, eyes averted from the road as a driver struggles to dial and drive, or text and drive.
Sixteen states have moved to deal with that danger, and Minnesota should waste little time in becoming the 17th. Last week House and Senate lawmakers from both parties joined forces to show their support. With them was Minnesota Highway Patrol Chief Matt Langer, who was unequivocal in his support. The state already prohibits texting while driving, but enforcement is problematic. “Too often officers wind up in roadside arguments,” Langer said, with drivers who insist they were dialing phones rather than texting. A hands-free bill, he said, would be unambiguous: Hands on the phone equals a ticket.
Lawmakers should also pass a separate bill that would increase penalties for texting while driving.
The culture of mobile-device use while driving has taken hold with a ferocity few could have anticipated even a decade ago. The practice has become ubiquitous — particularly among younger drivers — and the results are both disastrous and preventable.
A woman wearing an oversized Army dress jacket came to the Capitol last week for the announcement of the hands-free bill. Last summer Joanne Ploetz lost her Vietnam vet husband of 48 years, John Ploetz, when a driver with a long record of cellphone use while driving broadsided his vehicle. Joanne Ploetz said she wore the uniform to the news conference to honor her husband and convey the immensity of the loss she and her family suffered. “Our lives have never been the same,” she said.
Enough states have banned hands-on cellphone use that there now is statistical evidence of its effectiveness. In attempting to gather evidence for its own proposed law, researchers for the Georgia House Committee on Distracted Driving found that 13 of 15 states plus the District of Columbia with such laws saw an average 16 percent decrease in traffic fatalities within two years of passage. In California, where driving is a way of life, fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles plunged 31 percent in that time period.
That should be no surprise, given that looking at a phone for 4.6 seconds — about the time it takes to dial a number or glance at a text — is equal to driving the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour blindfolded.
The texting ban was a start, but clearly more is needed if Minnesota hopes to start changing the hazardous culture of mobile-phone use while driving. That will require tougher laws, penalties high enough to sting and education. The savings in lives will be worth it.