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Teens, traffic officials talk about distracted driving

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Friday's fatal crash
A truck lies upside down at the scene of a deadly crash on County Road 20 near Altura, Minn. on Friday, April 23, 2010, which killed three teenage girls.
Jake Rajewsky/AP

The deaths of 10 young people in car crashes in Minnesota this spring may help spur nationwide changes in traffic laws. And it may even change the way Americans drive.

Traffic experts say it takes only about seven seconds to send a text when you're behind the wheel. And that may have been all it took to kill Kelly Phillips.

She was 17 when she died three years ago, after a crash near Belle Plaine. Kelly was in the back seat. Her friend was driving and either texting or using an iPod at the same time. They both died.

Kelly's mother, Jane, talked Tuesday about her daughter, one of an estimated 6,000 people a year killed by distracted drivers.

"She was an honors student, a three-sport athlete. Unbelievable kid," said Jane Phillips. "Any parent would love to call her their own, and any student would love to have her as a sister or a best friend. So there is a face behind the statistics. There are people whose lives have been changed forever."

Phillips told her daughter's story to dozens of high school kids, to safe driving advocates and to state and federal officials at a conference at Tartan High School in Oakdale.

Jane Phillips
Jane Phillips' 17-year-old daughter, Kelly, was killed in a 2007 accident thought to have been caused by a distracted driver. She said her daughter's friend was suspected of texting behind the wheel before the fatal crash near Belle Plaine.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

They were joined by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland.

They say this spring's death toll, including two fatal accidents near Winona and another near Cambridge, underscores the need for tougher regulation of young drivers and a nationwide crackdown on talking and typing behind the wheel.

Klobuchar said she's signed on to federal legislation to ban hand-held cell phones behind the wheel. California, Connecticut and five other states already have such restrictions, but not Minnesota.

Klobuchar also called for a nationwide texting ban and new federal restrictions on young drivers, meant to curtail privileges at first, and only gradually turn them loose on the roads.

"From what I've seen nationally, like 10 to 40 percent decrease in certain accidents when you have that graduated standard, so responsibility is added," she said.

Kelly Phillips
Kelly Phillips, a Minnetonka High School student, was killed in a 2007 crash thought to have been caused by distracted driving.
Handout photo

Minnesota already has a texting ban and a graduated driver's license law, which prohibits late-night driving and having too many kids in a car for the first six months a teenager has his or her license.

But Strickland, the federal highway safety administrator, said the standards need to be consistent.

"The goal is to encourage the best and strongest and most effective laws as the foundation for safety. And the only way we can do that is by national legislation," he said.

Strickland said federal seat belt and drunk driving initiatives have already made a difference.

But some lawmakers are skeptical about whether the U.S. is ready to get tougher on teen drivers.

State Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-xx, said there has already been pushback in Minnesota regarding restrictions on young drivers. She said some of her legislative colleagues wanted parents to be able to opt out of the program for their kids.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and National Highway Traffic Safety Adminsitrator David Strickland talked about making some of Minnesota's driving laws a national model during an appearance in Oakdale today.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"Minnesota's graduated teen driver's license law is a very mild one. There were many of us that would have preferred it for the full year after you get your license you have these restrictions," Norton said. "Data shows that would have been a far better choice. Other states have that choice. So we did actually loosen up the provisions in the graduated teen license in order to get it passed."

And teens themselves say the law can only go so far.

A fatal crash in April in southeastern Minnesota was blamed on texting by a teen driver, despite the ban on that practice which went into effect in 2008. Three teens killed near Cambridge recently were on the road in violation of Minnesota's existing graduated licensing law.

"Some kids will say, 'Oh, I'm going to rebel, and I'm going to break this law anyway,'" said Tashie Xiong, head of Tartan High School's chapter of SADD, which has changed its name from Students Against Drunk Driving to Students Against Destructive Decisions -- in part a recognition of the other threats to teens, besides drunk driving.

Xiong says in the end, battling distracted driving is going to have to be a cultural change.

"This is a big issue. If I as a student, if I see that it's terrible to text while driving, I think a friend will listen to me, more than a law can tell them," said Xiong.

Congress, though, may weigh in anyway. There are three measures pending on Capitol Hill dealing with cell phones, texting, and new restrictions on young drivers.