House committee approves 'hands-free' cellphone bill

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

In sometimes emotional testimony, family members of people killed in crashes involving distracted drivers urged House lawmakers to support of making hand-held cellphone use illegal while driving.

Danielle Wishard-Tudor of Henderson, Minn., blamed a distracted driver for the 2017 crash that killed her brother.

"These are not accidents, OK?" said Wishard-Tudor. "There are vehicle crashes that result in lives lost and families devastated forever, all because drivers forgot the most important thing you do when you get behind the wheel of a car is — you just drive."

Under the bill, a hands-free cellphone with one-touch activation would be required for people who are driving. Sixteen other states have passed similar measures. The proposed legislation would expand Minnesota's existing ban on texting while driving.

Rhonda Maurer of Sauk Rapids, Minn., described a 2015 accident that claimed the lives of her uncle Chuck and cousin Cassie. Maurer told members of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division that action is long overdue.

"Something needs to be done as the numbers of crashes due to distracted driving continue to rise," Maurer said. "We cannot allow this epidemic to continue to take the lives of our loved ones."

Maurer, Wishard-Tudor and others had traveled to St. Paul before to urge lawmakers to take action. A similar bill came up short last year.

Bill Kelly, of Lino Lakes, Minn., a citizen advocate for the Brain Injury Alliance of Minnesota, questioned the delay.

"We've been trying to do this for eight or nine years," he said. "I'm just wondering what the heck is the holdup. Don't you guys get it?"

The panel approved the bill on a voice vote with no audible dissent and sent it to the Ways and Means Committee for further consideration. Sponsors of the bill are optimistic about its chances this year. House and Senate leaders from both parties have predicted it will pass.

A Minnesota Senate committee will hold a similar hearing Wednesday on the proposed legislation. The Senate transportation committee is also taking up a separate bill to toughen penalties for distracting driving.

Still some lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of the proposed legislation, given the many potential distractions for drivers. Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, also noted that drivers using cellphones now might just keep using them illegally.

"I mean there's no guarantee, right? I mean we pass a bill, that same person, that same probably very young, probably careless, not thinking person is probably going to still be capable of doing tremendous bodily harm," Runbeck said. "I mean this isn't going to stop it. So, the very people that we want this bill to affect are probably the ones that are still going to use the cellphone and drive, don't you think?"

Dr. Carl Burkland of the Minnesota Medical Association said the passage of the bill would send a strong message to drivers about the dangers of cellphone use.

"There should be an absolute no from the Legislature that this is not acceptable driving behavior."

Representatives of the Minnesota Truckers Association, Insurance Federation of Minnesota and Association of Minnesota Counties were among those who spoke in support of the bill.

Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said states with hands-free laws have seen a reduction in fatal crashes.

"Is hands-free an absolute fix for all fatalities? No," he said. "But it's clearly a factor that comes into play, and you can see data that the roads do get safer when hands-free is in place."

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