Hands-free phone bill speeds to next stop

Minnesota is closer to joining states where it is illegal for drivers to use phones without hands-free capability while in traffic.

The House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill restricting phone calls behind the wheel. It has other committees to clear at the Capitol before final votes. Gov. Mark Dayton said he would sign it.

Relatives of Minnesotans killed by distracted drivers held photographs of their loved ones while pressing lawmakers for the crackdown.

Greg Tikalsky of New Prague spoke about the anguish his family has felt and the obligation to do something about it. Tikalsky's father was struck and killed in 2015 as he was retrieving his newspaper. The driver was using a phone.

"Before we bury another Minnesotan, let's bury the political hatchet that is dividing passage of this bill," he said. "Before we send one more death and funeral notice, let's send out a birth announcement, of a new law that is going to save lives."

No one testified in opposition before the voice vote to send the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

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Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said he was supporting the bill with reservations -- because it might not go far enough.

"I don't want people to think it's a good idea to talk on a cell phone even with a hands-free device. You are still distracted," Considine said. "A chicken wing is still a distraction. A cup of coffee is still a distraction. I don't want to send a signal because you are doing it hands-free that you are safe. You are not. It's still a distraction."

Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, said he's focused on the practical with his bill, which has nearly three dozen cosponsors.

"Hands-free is proven to be a very, very good tool to reduce a lot of injuries and deaths around the country," Uglem said. "Would I like it if no one talked on a phone in the entire state while driving? Yes I would like that. But I guess really from a realistic standpoint that's not the case."

Allowable hands-free options can be a single headphone or technology integrated into a vehicle. It is already illegal in Minnesota to send emails or text messages while driving. Violations carry a $50 fine or $225 for repeat violators.

There would be an exception for navigation and for emergency calls.

Dayton added his support when asked about it during a news conference Tuesday on an unrelated topic.

"You read these stories about innocent people being killed. It is a form of murder if someone is driving their car or walking and suddenly is just mowed down," Dayton said, adding that more than a dozen states have passed the law already. "People can set up their cars or their earbuds to be able to have a conversation while their hands are on the wheel and their attention, their eyes are on the road. There's just no reason not to enforce that for everybody's protection."