Bill would allow only hands-free cell use for drivers

Rhonda Maurer talks about the death of two relatives in a crash involving a distracted driver. Behind her sponsors of a cell phone restriction bill: Republican Rep. Mark Uglem of Champlin, DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis and DFL Sen. Jim Carlson of Eagan. Brian Bakst | MPR Photo.

A new push to curb cell phone use by Minnesota drivers aims to make it illegal to use anything other than hands-free devices while at the wheel.

The bill outlined Tuesday has bipartisan sponsors and backing from safety advocates and the insurance industry. But past efforts to clamp down on smartphone activity by drivers has encountered resistance, aside from a texting-while-driving ban that took years to enact.

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, supports the bill and said as a paramedic he's seen firsthand the aftermath of distracted driving. He equated the restriction to highway guardrails meant to keep cars on the road, and he noted that modern cars are built with Bluetooth technology that make compliance easier.

"We are not taking away your right to speak on the phone in the car,” Newberger said. “You can still talk on the phone. You just have to be hands free."

The proposal would build off a texting-while-driving ban already in Minnesota law. It calls for escalating penalties depending on how often a driver is caught breaking the law, with a $225 fine for repeat offenders.

There would be exemptions for devices used exclusively for navigational purposes and calls made to emergency responders.

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Minnesota would join 14 other states in making it illegal to use a hand-held device while driving.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, held up an iPhone at a news conference to emphasize his point.

“In terms of a message we want to send through this bill to Minnesota, it's simply this: Put this down. Put it away when you're driving."

He added later, “When you're using this phone, you're putting yourself and others at risk."

Rhonda Maurer of Sauk Rapids shared the account of an accident that claimed the lives of her uncle, Chuck, and her 10-year-old cousin, Cassy. The van they were in was struck by a driver who ran a red light while, according to court records, sending messages over social media.

"We need to get off our phones while we are behind the wheel,” Maurer said. “It is our responsibility to make our roads safe. And if attitudes and behaviors don't change about distracted driving, it could easily happen to you next."

Newberger and fellow Republican Rep. Mark Uglem of Champlin are part of this year’s push. That’s notable given the GOP control of the Legislature.

But Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he’s not convinced people are ready to set down their phones.

“They like their freedom,” Limmer said.

He said talking on a phone differs from squinting to see or craft a text.

“Talking on a phone is somewhat different,” Limmer said. “It can often be akin to more like drinking a Coke from the local McDonald’s drive-up window, which seems to be very popular in this state.”