Two years ago, Rhonda Maurer of Sauk Rapids lost her beloved uncle and 10-year-old cousin when a distracted driver posting on Facebook plowed through a red light into their pickup.
The crash, she said in a halting voice Tuesday at a news conference, “was 100 percent preventable.”
Maurer was lending her support to a bill pending in the Legislature that proponents say would help curb accidents and fatalities caused by distracted drivers. The proposal would ban drivers from using hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel, thrusting Minnesota into the broader national debate about distracted driving — a leading factor in automobile accidents.
Inattentive driving contributed to more than 86,000 crashes and 74 deaths between 2011 and 2015, according to the State Patrol. Inattentive driving citations issued by the State Patrol, which include cellphone use and texting, nearly doubled from 2014 to 2016. Experts say the number of crashes caused by distracted driving is likely underreported.
At any given moment, 9 percent of all drivers nationwide are using their cellphones while driving, according to federal data. This phenomenon has left lawmakers from coast to coast struggling with ways to stem the growing number of accidents and fatalities that can be traced to the often deadly combination of cars and cellphones.
“We feel we must introduce this bill to stop the carnage on our roads ,” Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, said Tuesday. He conceded that “it will be very difficult to legislate compliance, but we’re going to do the best we can.”
It’s already illegal to text while driving in Minnesota — and in 45 other states, too. But a bill proposed this week by Uglem and Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, seeks to expand the pool of potential scofflaws to include those who juggle their phones while motoring. The bill would still allow the use of phones in hands-free mode.
So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws barring drivers from using hand-held electronics and phones.
Safety experts say that even hands-free driving leaves drivers distracted.
The proposed bill won’t increase fines for distracted driving in Minnesota. Under the current anti-texting law, first offenders are hit with a $50 fine, and second-timers face a $250 penalty.
The bill appears to have at least some bipartisan support in the GOP-controlled Legislature. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has not commented on it, but he previously supported increasing fines for texting while driving. It’s unclear where House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, stands on the bill — he did not respond for comment Tuesday.
Part of the allure of the proposed ban involves giving police more tools to enforce the law. As Lt. Tiffani Nelson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota State Patrol, notes, “It will be easier to observe someone holding a phone to their ear than someone who is texting.”
Beyond prohibiting texting, current Minnesota law bans e-mailing (reading and sending) and internet surfing while in traffic. Law enforcement issued 3,082 citations to motorists for texting while behind the wheel in 2016 and 367 to commercial vehicle operators for using a handheld mobile telephone while driving. So far in 2017, 194 drivers and 15 commercial vehicle drivers have been cited this year by the State Patrol, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Kara Macek, of the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association, said it’s unclear whether hand-held bans are effective, though enforcement campaigns in 2012 in New York and Connecticut showed some encouraging signs.
A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that high-visibility enforcement resulted in the number of drivers using hand-held devices declining by 32 percent in Syracuse, N.Y., and by 57 percent in Hartford, Conn. Following a January 2014 ban on talking or texting while driving in Illinois, citations more than doubled, from 6,796 to 14,835.
“We know education, enforcement work. That is what it took before we saw improvement with alcohol and seat belts,” said Maureen Vogel of the Illinois-based National Safety Council.
Connecticut was one of the first states to ban the use of hand-held devices by drivers in the mid-2000s, yet the state constantly reminds drivers not to use their electronics, said Trooper Kelly Grant of the Connecticut State Police.
Fines are steeper in Connecticut than in Minnesota: Violators face a $150 fine for the first offense, which could reach $500 or more if the offense occurs in a construction zone or if the driver is operating a school bus or commercial vehicle.
Some groups say laws should go even further by totally banning phone use while driving.
“Science tells us that it is as dangerous to use a hand-held device or a hands-free device because the distraction is not with the hands, but with the brain,” Vogel said. “It takes a different cognitive ability to drive than it does to talk, and you can’t focus on two demanding cognitive tasks at the same time.”
According to the council, the part of the brain that processes moving images decreases by 37 percent when using a cellphone, and those drivers miss up to 50 percent of stop signs, stoplights and hazards around them.
“If hands were the problem, we would have outlawed manual transmission cars long ago,” Vogel said.
Some Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday said the proposed bill could be an incremental step toward a law with stiffer penalties and broader sweep. But Uglem did not seem inclined to support a ban on hands-free devices. “Wireless communication devices are an integral part of society,” he said.
Maurer, who lost her uncle Chuck Maurer and cousin Cassy Maurer in a distracted driving accident, said the Minnesota bill is a good start. She started a foundation called Minnesotans Fighting Distracted Driving “to help grieve. I don’t want other people to feel the pain of unnecessary loss.”