We’ve all experienced too many “you’ve gotta be kidding me’’ driving behaviors among our fellow motorists. There’s the woman yelling at the kids and applying makeup behind the wheel. The commuter juggling a cup of coffee and a quick cellphone call to the office while making a turn. And the teenager who steers with one hand as the thumb of the other excitedly shoots off a text to the BFF.
Combine what we’ve seen with our own eyes with distracted-driver data, and the conclusion is clear: The Minnesota Legislature must require hands-free-only cellphone use while driving. Bills pending in the Senate and House should be among the measures that move out of committee and advance to full floor votes.
That’s the message many families emphasized to lawmakers last week. After listening to those stories, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, launched an informal poll on his Facebook page to gather people’s opinions on the hands-free bill. As of Monday afternoon, about 4,800 had responded with roughly 80 percent in support of the proposal.
In addition to grieving family members and friends, traffic safety groups such as the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota support the restriction to combat what they call “epidemic’’ levels of unsafe electronic device use on the road. The state Department of Public Safety reports that texting citations climbed nearly 23 percent from 2016 to 2017, with 7,357 drivers ticketed last year. And state statistics show that distracted driving causes 1 in every 4 vehicle crashes.
The proposed legislation wouldn’t prohibit drivers from talking on their phones altogether. Rather, it would prevent them from holding a phone to their ear, requiring any device use to be hands-free. Motorists could still use their smartphones on speaker mode, through a Bluetooth connection within the car or with a single earbud or earphone — but only if they use the device with one touch.
Advocates for the measure cite studies that show that fatal crashes have dropped in all but one of the 15 states that have enacted hands-free laws, with an average decrease of 16 percent in the two years after the law was passed.
Gazelka told an editorial writer that his unscientific Facebook poll demonstrated that there is a lot of interest in the issue. He said that momentum is building, but much like Sunday liquor sales legislation it could take several cycles before it becomes law. He added that there are other distracted-driving proposals in the legislative mix that could make it difficult to reach consensus in the two weeks left in the 2018 session.
Still, lawmakers should try to push this measure into law. The hands-free bill doesn’t go far enough or encompass all potential driving distractions. But it would be a strong first step toward reducing the number of traffic deaths and injuries caused by inattentive driving.