Deal sends message to drivers: Prepare to put phone down

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Rep. Hornstein takes a picture as Rep. Noor signs a hands-free bill
Rep. Frank Hornstein takes a picture as Rep. Mohamud Noor, a fellow Minneapolis DFLer, signs a compromise bill to limit the use of cell phones by drivers. The bill could reach final votes this week.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

As soon as Tuesday, the Legislature will vote on a bill to make Minnesota the 18th state where it's illegal to hold a cellphone while operating a vehicle.

A House-Senate conference committee finalized the proposal Monday after lawmakers spent many years of debating whether it was the right way to stem a growing public safety hazard. Under the bill, which Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign, the new law takes effect on Aug. 1.

"We're making history today and in this session. This has been a long time in coming," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a sponsor of the bill.

"But we also know hands-free is not always distraction-free and so we want to also send a message to Minnesotans to just put your phones down and concentrate and have as few distractions as possible to ensure a safe ride," he added.

That message would come through the increased ability of law enforcement to make a stop if they see a driver holding a device. Violations could result in a fine.

But Col. Matt Langer, chief of the State Patrol, said the immediate goal is to build awareness about the new law, the reasons for it and ways to legally use a device. That could be through a speakerphone, an earbud headphone, a Bluetooth connection or by using a wireless feature built into many cars.

"That public education is going to be intentional and earnest and robust. We want people to comply with the law. We would much rather have them comply with the law than have us enforce it," Langer said, adding that the Department of Public Safety and partnering organizations intend to get the word out in several formats and multiple languages.

The bill makes exceptions for people to use a navigation system as long as they are not holding the phone. Any programming would have to be done outside the course of traffic. People could also make calls in an emergency. It also allows people to pull off to the shoulder or, if not in an area normally used for traffic, to activate a phone feature by hand.

As part of the compromise, a provision making it explicitly permissible to tuck a phone into a headscarf or another piece of clothing was removed. Langer said as long as the phone isn't being touched or gripped it wouldn't be a cause for a stop anyway.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he believes lawmakers were ultimately swayed by the heart-wrenching stories of families devastated by incidents involving a phone-distracted driver.

"I think we are actually going to have an impact on people's lives," Newman said. "I think there are a lot of good people in Minnesota who are going to listen to what this bill is all about and they are going to put their phones down because we have passed this law."

Some of those family members Newman spoke of were in the room. They applauded and hugged as the deal was ratified by the six-member panel.

Kevin Donnelly of St. Paul was tearful. He was there on behalf of his nephew, David Riggs, who was struck and killed in 2013 as he waited to turn into his driveway in Oakdale. The other driver was distracted by phone and there were no skid marks.

"Maybe people will wake up and realize that a car is not a phone booth. A car is a vehicle to drive and stay off the phone," Donnelly said. "I don't want anybody to get hurt anymore or killed or even fined. This is a necessity. It had to happen."

State senators also voted Monday to get tougher on drivers distracted by their phones, especially those who cause serious crashes.

In a 56-9 vote, the Senate passed a bill raising fines for repeat violators of an existing ban on texting while driving. Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said his bill would also impose possible felony penalties if someone's phone use leads to a deadly crash.

"If you are found to be non-hands-free and you get into an accident using your cellphone, you are going to be treated like a drunk driver," he said. "If you injure someone or you kill someone, we're going to have some of the stiffest penalties in the nation."

The measure works in concert with the hands-free bill

Some senators voiced concern about putting distracted driving on par with DWIs.

"There is a difference between impairment and distraction. While you are distracted you might be considered impaired but only from the psychological standpoint that you may not be able to make the decisions as quickly or arrive at that judgment as quickly," said Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, who said he would "very reluctantly" support the bill.

As part of Osmek's bill, driver's education would be required to include information about the dangers of and penalties associated with being distracted behind the wheel.

"Kids especially need to understand how dangerous using cellphones is, how digging for the last Cheeto at the bottom of the bag or yelling at someone in the back seat is a problem," Osmek said. "We need to get serious because we are killing people on the roads of Minnesota."