Lawmakers consider tougher distracted driving rules

Cell Phone
A driver uses a cell phone, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009, in Freeport, Maine.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Minnesota legislators are considering additional laws to crack down on inattentive drivers, particularly those who are chatting or texting on their cell phones.

At the state Capitol yesterday, a joint House-Senate committee heard suggestions for additional restrictions to curb cell phone use in cars and other forms of distracted driving.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said there will be some legislation proposed next year. For now, he said lawmakers just want to hear from the public, safety experts, law enforcement authorities and others about what should be done.

"I view this as perhaps the beginning of what I hope will be a collaborative process with everyone who has a stake in traffic safety in helping to craft legislation that will be comprehensive in nature, that will continue Minnesota's tradition of being a leader in traffic safety and particularly address the issue of distracted driving," he said.

Safety experts told legislators that distracted drivers -- often focused on their cell phones -- cause about a quarter of vehicle collisions.

Gail Weinholzer of AAA Minnesota-Iowa said too many people act irresponsibly when they get behind the wheel of car.

"People believe what they do in their cars on public roadways is their right," she said. "Unfortunately, what they don't understand is part of the phrase 'public roadways.' And the fact their actions impact the lives and safety of others."

Weinholzer said a national AAA poll found 83 percent of drivers say cell phone use and distracted driving are serious problems. At the same time, they hold themselves to a different standard.

"Over half of those drivers admitted to using their cell phone while they drove within the last 30 days," she said. "And over 20 percent admitted to texting and driving in the last 30 days. So, it's very much a society of 'do as I say not as I do.' Drivers believe they can safely talk and text but the other person in the other car can't."

Weinholzer says the state needs a distracted driving law that forbids any activity -- reading, eating, messing around with electronic devices, whatever -- that interferes with the safe operation of a vehicle.

Legislators heard warnings that studies show drivers on their cell phones can be more dangerous than drunk drivers.

"Cell phone drivers had slower reaction times than those with a .08 blood alcohol level," said David Teater of the National Safety Council. "It should scare us to death."

Teater urged legislators to make Minnesota the first state in the nation to enact a total ban on cell phone use by drivers.

"I believe by doing that we'll see crash statistics drop dramatically and very quickly," he said. "It'll be easier for law enforcement to enforce if it's a total ban."

Teater said there's widespread public support for greater restrictions on cell phone use and distracted driving.

Six states prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving, but they permit so-called hands free phones. Minnesota and 18 other states ban texting while driving.

The telecom industry even supports some restrictions.

An AT&T Wireless executive said his company has supported text messaging bans for drivers, and even bans on cell phone use by teens and other inexperienced drivers.

Minnesota State Patrol Captain Michele Tuchner said troopers could use additional laws to help them combat distracted driving, especially when it comes to pulling over people suspected of texting while driving.

"We may witness some driving conduct that is minimal but doesn't violate a law," she said. "They may be looking down while they're in their vehicle. They may have their hands off the wheel. But unless there is some violation of law, those are the times when it's difficult for us to take action against distracted driving."

That seems to be reflected in the State Patrol's enforcement of the state ban on texting while driving. Last year, troopers issued just 153 warnings and 124 citations to drivers caught texting while driving.

If legislators decide to get tougher on folks using their cell phones while driving, those numbers could skyrocket.