Minnesota law prohibits texting while driving, but it continues to happen. And violators are getting caught.
Law enforcement cited 9,545 motorists for texting while driving in 2018, a 30 percent jump from 2017, according to a Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) analysis of court records released Wednesday.
Citations have increased for six straight years, rising 459 percent since 2012 when texting while driving was outlawed. That year, police handed out 1,707 tickets.
“The citation data underscores the significant challenge we have in getting drivers to pay attention to the task of driving,” said Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol. “We encourage all drivers to pay attention to the task of driving, which is a full-time job.”
Two people have been killed in distracted driving-related crashes already this year. One of the fatal crashes involved a driver using a cellphone and one involved distraction from a passenger, the DPS said.
Between 2012 and 2017, 320 people died in distracted driving crashes and 1,338 people suffered serious injuries, the DPS said. Preliminary data shows that 27 people died in distracted driving crashes last year, the DPS said.
Minnesota law prohibits drivers of all ages from composing, reading or sending text messages or accessing the internet while the vehicle is part of traffic, which includes when stopped at a stop sign or traffic light. Drivers under 18 are not allowed to use a cellphone, either hand-held or hands-free, except to make an emergency call to 911.
The law could become more restrictive and more expensive for those who break it. Lawmakers are debating bills that would make Minnesota the next state to ban drivers from using hand-held phones and electronic devices, with an exception to touch the device once to answer a call, start a podcast or activate a navigation app.
Bills banning the use of hand-held phones passed committees this week in both the House and Senate.
A second bill that would raise fines for violators also passed a Senate committee this week. The current fine is $50 plus court fees for a first offense and $275 for a subsequent offense. The Senate bill being debated would raise initial fines to $150, rising to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. The bill also would allow the state to confiscate a driver’s phone after several offenses and require distracted driving education to be included as part of driver’s education courses. Drivers who text while behind the wheel and cause a crash leading to injury or death could be subject to penalties on par with those caught driving drunk, according to the bill.
“It’s time to get some teeth in the law and as a state say it’s time to put down the phone,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, the chief author of the bill to stiffen penalties.
The citation data serves as proof that the state needs to take action to change the driving culture, said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.
“We shouldn’t need laws to encourage drivers to pay attention to the road,” he said.