Several state lawmakers have proposed a ban on all cellphone use while driving except in emergencies or hands-free mode. The bill is co-authored by Rep. Frank Hornstein (D-Minneapolis) and Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin). If passed, Minnesota would join 14 other states—and Washington, D.C.—with such a “hands-free” law.
As technology advances, laws have simply not kept up. In many states—including Minnesota—law enforcement’s hands are tied when it comes to issuing citations for talking on a cellphone in traffic. This behavior is as dangerous as driving with a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC), leading to unnecessary vehicular accidents, injuries, and deaths.
The bill was to be included in the House’s current transportation bill but now faces delay until next year. If Dayton vetoes the current transportation bill, a new cellphone ban initiative could be placed into a revised bill in the near future.
Current and Proposed Minnesota Law
Since 2008, it is illegal to text and drive in Minnesota. At the time this law was passed, legislators considered expanding the bill to include all handheld calls as well; however, the final version only included texting, browsing, and similar uses.
If passed, the ban would carry the same criminal penalties as the state’s texting ban: $50 for a first offense and $225 for each subsequent offense. The law would have exceptions such as for emergency use and for all devices that are permanently affixed to vehicles.
Washington state proposed similar legislation to address its troubling high distracted driving motor vehicle accident rate. Like Minnesota’s efforts, Washington’s Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act—which takes effect the end of July—seeks to ban any type of cellphone use while driving or in traffic except in emergencies or hands-free mode. Offenders would be subjected to a $136 fine for a first offense and $234 for any subsequent offense within five years. Additionally, offenders would be reported to their insurance companies and likely face increased premiums.
Washington’s efforts are a result of a 32 percent increase in distracted driving deaths between 2013 and 2015.
Current State of Minnesota’s Bill
Despite widespread support from law enforcement agencies, advocacy groups, and Governor Mark Dayton, the bill will likely be deferred until 2018. Dayton supports the legislation following an 18 percent increase in distracted driving fatalities from 2014 to 2015.
Even though distracted driving is the fourth leading cause of vehicular deaths, experts assert that the effort will continue to face opposition from some representatives like Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center and Chair of the House Public Safety Committee) who says that he has no interest in supporting such a measure without clear and conclusive evidence that such a law would, in fact, reduce motor vehicle accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
Other legislators like Senator Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) said that while he is interested in discussing the measure, the current bill arrived too late in the term to be granted a formal hearing.
Hornstein has criticized the state in being slow in adopting other transportation safety measures such as lowering the legal BAC limit to .08 and criminalizing not wearing a seat belt. He did express optimism that Minnesota has been demonstrating more concern in making the highways safer.
Advocates Weigh In
The Insurance Federation of Minnesota, Minnesotans for Safe Driving, the Associated General Contractors, and the Minnesota Safety Council have all expressed concerns that the bill would be delayed until next year, thus resulting in numerous accidents and fatalities that could have been prevented had law enforcement been increased.
Asking Minnesotans not to drive with cellphone in hand is neither an unrealistic nor ridiculous request but simply a common-sense approach to a legitimate and dangerous problem.