Capitol View®

Hands-free bill a big step closer to becoming law

The final version of a cell phone bill affecting Minnesota drivers is halfway home.

The Minnesota House voted 107-19 on Tuesday to restrict motorist phone use to hands-free mode. The Senate could vote Wednesday to send the bill to Gov. Tim Walz, who plans to sign it.

It gives law enforcement the ability to stop and ticket drivers seen holding a phone.

Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said it’s a step toward cutting down on roadway distractions.

“We don’t have to text and drive. We don’t have to do anything but drive we when drive. But we choose to do other things when we’re driving,” Torkelson said. “But that’s a choice we each make, and some of us make that choice poorly and we do things in our car we should not be doing.”

The bill has been before the Legislature for several years. Supporters say severe injuries and deaths caused by distracted drivers demand that lawmakers do something.

The new restriction would take effect in August. Getting caught with a phone could come with a $50 fine, but the violation would top $200 for repeat offenses.

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.

Acceptable workarounds would be through a speakerphone, an earbud headphone (authorities say only one ear is allowed) or by using a wireless feature built into many cars.

Opponents of the bill -- all 19 who voted against that were Republicans -- argued the restriction isn’t the solution that supporters are after.

Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, said text-by-voice and other wireless phone features are equally distracting for drivers.

“I’ve seen so many people that use this technology in the car look at the phone while they’re doing it. Hands-free is a misnomer,” Munson said. “We want eyes on the road. We want eyes on the road, that’s what we should be focused on, not hands.”

Munson and others said enforcement could be a challenge because officers would need to prove someone had their phone in hand, even if it wasn’t in use. They also questioned whether smart watches would get the same treatment.

“This bill is not ready. It’s going to cause heartache and problems for the people of Minnesota,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “It’s just not ready.”

Bill backers said those arguments missed the point.

“There’s only a plethora of questions if you forget about the fact that people are being killed or maimed on our highways,” said Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato. “This bill works. It has worked in every single place and it has reduced the number of people who are killed or being maimed.”