Families, cops push bill requiring 'hands-free' driving

Joe Tikalsky, left, was killed by a distracted driver on her phone.
Joe Tikalsky, far left, was killed by a distracted driver who later admitted she was texting when she hit him. His son Greg, center, is lobbying for a bill that would make drivers use Bluetooth or an earbud if they want to talk on the phone while driving.
Courtesy of Greg Tikalsky

The Minnesota State Patrol and families that have lost loved ones to distracted driving want lawmakers to turn Minnesota into the 16th hands-free driving state in the country.

They'll testify Tuesday before the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee, which is considering the bill.

Under the bill, drivers would no longer be able to hold their phones while driving.

For Greg Tikalsky, getting this law passed is personal.

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His father Joe was a school bus driver for several years in New Prague.

Tikalsky, also of New Prague, said his dad prided himself in keeping children on the bus safe on the roads.

"He had a lot of fun on the bus," he said. "Maybe distributed more candy than needed to."

On Oct. 28, 2015, Joe Tikalsky died on the road outside his house on his way to get the paper from his mailbox.

The woman who hit him with her car was texting behind the wheel.

"The driver said before she was able to hit the send button she hit a yellow blur and that blur was my dad," Greg Tikalsky said.

The Greg and his wife Tammi Tikalsky will testify at the committee hearing Tuesday.

There is also a similar bill in the Senate. Both bills call for Minnesotans to use Bluetooth capabilities or a single earbud if they want to talk on the phone while driving.

"We will not let go because this is not about my dad. It's not about the people lost, it is about the people we have left," Greg Tikalsky said.

Minnesota law allows for people to hold a phone in their hands while driving to talk on the phone. Texting and driving is already illegal, but Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokesperson Mike Hanson said the current law is too difficult for officers to enforce.

"One of the challenges that enforcement officers have to take out there is determining that it was not a phone call but a text or webpage or something like that other than a conversation," Hanson said.

The State Patrol and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota also support a hands-free driving law.

Insurance Federation spokesperson Mark Kulda said distracted driving has financial implications, too.

"Claims are definitely going up and people are using their phones more and more, and the numbers we have seen and surveys don't adequately express the problem that's out there," he said.

Kulda said some potential problems with the bill come from lawmakers who don't feel like it would make a difference since so many others possible distractions already exist on the roads.

Some people also feel it is a personal liberty issue.

"It is kind of the same reason we don't have helmet law. It's one of the reasons why we were one of last states to do primary enforcement of seatbelts. We were one of the last states to pass a graduated driver's license," he said. "There are people, particularly in greater Minnesota, who don't want government involved in what they do and I think they see this as one of those bills."

Tammi Tikalsky wants lawmakers to consider her late father-in-law's rights.

"It isn't fair to the families who have to bury a loved one," she said.

A State Patrol report released last week shows distracted driving contributes to 1 in 4 crashes in Minnesota, and it contributed to an average of 59 deaths and 223 serious injuries per year over the last five years.

If the House committee passes the bill on Tuesday, it would still take several steps to make it before the full Legislature for a vote.