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Bills at Minnesota Capitol aim to get drivers to put down their phones (copy)

ST. PAUL — Proposals aimed at getting people to put down their phones and concentrate on driving advanced at the Minnesota State Capitol last week.

After a few years of trying, legislators, including one from Eden Prairie, have said this could be the year to pass a hands-free cell phones while driving bill, but the measures that have been proposed in the Minnesota Senate and Minnesota House of Representatives still have at least one more committee stop before they can potentially be taken up by their respective chambers.

Here’s a look at each bill that has been proposed and what the bill would do.

Penalty increases bill

The bill, SF75, sponsored by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, would do three main things:

Increase penalties for texting while driving from a petty misdemeanor to a misdemeanor, with a tiered fine structure. The first offense would be a $150 fine, a second offense would be a $300 fine and a third or subsequent offense would be a $500 fine and the driver’s phone could be subject to forfeiture. Currently, the first offense for texting while driving is a $50 fine and the second and subsequent offenses are a $275 fine.

The bill would make it so if a driver uses a cell phone that’s not in hands-free mode while driving and gets in a fatal crash, the driver would be guilty of a crime. The penalties would be the same if you had been driving drunk, Osmek explained during the Jan. 23 Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

It would require information on distracted driving to be included in driver’s education courses and in the driver’s manual.

“It’s time for us to get some teeth into the law. It’s time for us as a state to say ‘you need to put the phone down.’ SF75, I think, serves the citizens of Minnesota well,” Osmek said.

He noted the bill “takes the right steps” and “provides law enforcement … a stronger statutory position to even just advertise ‘If you do this, you can go to jail for a long time.’”

“We have to do something that gets people’s attention. Changing the penalties, changing the fines certainly does that,” Osmek said.

Other lawmakers from the area that have shown their support for the bill by signing on as co-authors include: Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, D-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska.

The proposal got the OK from the Senate Transportation Committee, but it will have to go through at least one more committee before being taken up by the full Senate.

There’s a companion bill in the House, HF150, that is awaiting a hearing by the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division.

Hands-free bill

This bill, SF91, sponsored by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, would ban cellphone use while driving, unless the phone is in hands-free or voice-activated mode or it’s an emergency.

“This particular bill is one I see as proactive, and I specifically have not increased the penalties in this bill because what I’m trying to accomplish here is to get people to put their phone down,” Newman said during the Jan. 23 Senate Transportation Committee.

He noted that he and others have tried to push through a distracted driving bill, but they couldn’t do it because there are too many legal ambiguities. That’s why he’s pushing for a hands-free bill, noting using a cellphone while driving is one of the most egregious forms of distracted driving.

Not only is distracted driving a factor in many fatal crashes on Minnesota roads, but it is costly for people who make sure not to use their phone while driving.

“Here’s the bottom line: distracted driving is affecting everyone in this room. If you drive a car and you buy insurance, if you run a business and buy insurance, you’re paying more because of distracted driving. … Distracted driving is having a negative effect on consumers,” Bob Johnson of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota said during the committee meeting.

Johnson was one of several people to testify in support of both Senate measures, calling SF91 a “preventative bill” and noted increasing penalties is part of deterrence, “so we should pass that.”

Osmek has also shown his support for hands-free legislation by signing on as a co-author.

SF91 got the OK from the Senate Transportation Committee, but it will have to go through at least one more committee before potentially being taken up by the full Senate.

There’s a companion bill in the House, HF50, that has the support from a handful of legislators from the southwestern suburbs who have signed on as co-sponsors. They include: Rep. Hunter Cantrell, D-Savage; Rep. Cheryl Youakim, D-Hopkins; and Rep. Brad Tabke, D-Shakopee.

HF50 got approval from the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The bill will also have at least one more committee stop before it could potentially be taken up by the full House.

To become law, both chambers must pass identical versions of the bill and Gov. Tim Walz has to sign it into law.

Distracted driving in Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Safety says texting and driving citations have jumped 30 percent from 2017 to 2018, and since 2012 texting citations have increased by 459 percent.

Last year, law enforcement officers in Minnesota wrote 9,545 tickets for texting while driving, the agency said.

“We shouldn’t need laws to encourage drivers to pay attention to the road,” Mike Hanson, Office of Traffic Safety director, said in a statement. “The citation data is further evidence that much more needs to be done to change our driving culture. That’s why the Department of Public Safety supports laws that make our roads safer, including legislation for hands-free cell phone use behind the wheel.”

Being distracted by a cell phone — or anything else — while driving can be deadly. The Department of Safety noted preliminary reports show there were at least 27 distracted driving fatalities in 2018, including four in Hennepin County.

That’s up slightly compared to 2017, when 25 people died in distracted driving-related incidents on Minnesota roads.

Submitted photo 

Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn