Pass A Hands-Free Cell Phone Law

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

It isn’t easy finding legislation on which Democrats and Republicans agree without intense public bickering and private negotiating leading to an agreement in the last minutes of a Minnesota legislative session. However, we might be seeing bipartisan agreement develop on a bill that is essential to public safety early in the current session.

A Republican state senator has already introduced a bill to address distracted driving with the requirement for hands-free-only cell phone use. A Democratic Minnesota House member is planning on introducing similar legislation in the coming week.

Republicans continue their control of the Minnesota Senate. Democrats took control the state House in the 2018 November election. If the leadership of both houses is willing to get behind this legislation, it has a strong chance of getting through this year. Last year, debate on a hands-free bill stalled when Republicans in the House blocked action with a 74-53 vote.

“Distracted driving fatalities are continually on the rise and we have the opportunity to pass significant safety measures to combat these tragedies,” DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said following the vote last year.

“Eighty percent of Minnesotans support this common sense bill. Over a fourth of the Minnesota House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors. Minnesotans deserve action taken to make our roads safer and reduce preventable injuries and deaths. House Republican leadership’s failure to act is shameful,” he said.

Perhaps the increasing number of tragic stories like the following one are finally swaying some of those who have opposed previous attempts at tougher laws:

“Investigators believe a 24-year-old man was putting away his cellphone when he crashed into a car stopped on a highway, killing a beloved teacher and her 8-year-old daughter.” Tragic stories like this one are repeated across the nation daily and far too often in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s current distracted driving law says: It is illegal for drivers to read/compose/send text messages and emails, or access the Internet using a wireless device while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic —including stopped in traffic or at a traffic light.

It further says that cell phone use is totally banned for school bus drivers. During their permit and provisional license stages teen drivers are completely banned from cell phone use. It is illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cell phone, whether hand-held or hands-free — except to call 911 in an emergency.   

What we know from law enforcement is that the law is hard to enforce because it can be difficult to determine just how a person is using a cell phone in the vehicle. We also know from observation that drivers nearly universally ignore the law. We know of no other law for which there is such widespread disdain with virtually no fear of being stopped or prosecuted.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is the Senate sponsor of this year’s bill. He chairs the Senate transportation committee, giving him a pivotal role in conducting hearings on the bill and moving it toward the Senate floor for a vote. If his bill were to pass, drivers couldn’t hold their cell phones, text or view video content.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House transportation committee, is the likely lead author of the hands-free bill in that body. “Distracted driving is an epidemic and momentum for the proposal has grown as lawmakers hear more stories about tragic accidents,” Hornstein told Minnesota Public Radio.

 “The purpose of doing a bill like this is to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, that we have taken every step possible as a state to prevent death and injury on our roadways due to distracted driving,” he said.

At a recent Minnesota Chamber of Commerce forum, MPR reports, leaders of both parties said there was a good chance for a hands-free law to pass. However, some legislators will oppose a bill for which the penalties for violating the law are considered too harsh. Making the offense a felony could derail support.

We know from conversations with law enforcement officers that when the penalties for the violation of a law seem out of line with the offense and so severe that they take basic freedoms away, lead to jail time, and fines in the thousands of dollars, that some officers could be reluctant to charge people. Prosecutors, already overwhelmed, could also be far more likely to agree to reduce the charges and penalties.

We need a common sense law with penalties that are strong enough to get driver compliance, and that make stopping and charging violators easier.

At the same time, the new law has to make the penalties for injuring or killing someone while using a phone much more severe.

“People are going to jail now when they’re killing people for five days, 10 days. The stories are ridiculous,” Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, told MPR. “You have impacted someone else’s family. You have impacted someone else’s future. You’ve taken it away, and you’re not just going to spend a couple of days in jail anymore.”

The outlook for the proposal improved this week when top House and Senate leaders from both parties predicted during a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce forum that a hands-free bill will pass this year.

Pleading, educating, and slaps on the cell phone hand have proven futile in getting most people to put their devices down while driving. It is time for a law the gets their attention.

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