Legislative leaders say 'hands-free' cell phone bill will pass this year

Distracted driving
A man uses his cell phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas.
LM Otero | AP 2013

Minnesota lawmakers are making another push this year to ban people from holding cell phones while they drive. What's known as "hands-free" legislation was introduced Thursday in the Senate and a House version is expected next week.

Families of people who were killed by distracted drivers pushed for a hands-free requirement last year, but the bill stalled out and lawmakers never took a final vote.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said some issues move slowly in the Legislature as lawmakers mull them over. Newman said he is seeing increasing support for the proposal, and he is upbeat about its chances this session.

"When I talk to my constituents about it even the — we'll call them for lack of a better term the libertarians mdash; even they are recognizing that this is a public safety issue, and it's not a personal liberty issue," said Newman. "So, even the most far-right folks are telling me, 'you know, Newman, I think this is a good idea. I think we should move forward with it.'"

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Newman chairs the Senate transportation committee and said he plans a hearing later this month. Under his bill, drivers would be prohibited from holding cell phones, texting or viewing video content.

The chair of the House transportation committee, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is also sponsoring the bill. Distracted driving is an epidemic and momentum for the proposal has grown as lawmakers hear more stories about tragic accidents, Hornstein said.

"The purpose of doing a bill like this is to ensure that this doesn't happen again, that we have taken every step possible as a state to prevent to death and injury on our roadways due to distracted driving."

The outlook for the proposal improved this week when top House and Senate leaders from both parties predicted during a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce forum that a hands-free bill will pass this year.

But another key lawmaker expressed reservations.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he is concerned that some of his colleagues want to make it a felony to talk on a cell phone while driving.

"That is serious business when you try to give somebody a felony, and they lose their job, they can't vote, they can't own a gun. So, the Legislature may get bogged down in that depending on what the penalty provisions are."

Another bill expected to get a transportation committee hearing this month would increase fines for Minnesota's existing prohibition on texting while driving and allow for the confiscation of a driver's cell phone after multiple offenses. That bill's author, Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said he wants distracted drivers who are involved in accidents that kill or injure to face the same penalties as drunk drivers.

"People are going to jail now when they're killing people for five days, 10 days. The stories are ridiculous," he said. "You have impacted someone else's family. You have impacted someone else's future. You've taken it away, and you're not just going to spend a couple of days in jail anymore."