Minnesota lawmakers focused on the rules of the road in a big way this week, considering bills to penalize distractions, nuisances and other dangers.
In the name of safety, legislators are pushing to punish people whose hands are on a phone rather than the steering wheel, imposing fines for motorists who get stopped for it and introducing the possibility of prison time if the device distraction leads to a serious injury or fatal crash. They have proposed stripping licenses, potentially for life, from people caught driving drunk more than five times.
To deal with other aggravations, lawmakers are debating fines for drivers who dawdle in the left lane as cars stack up behind. And, most controversial of all, they’ve resumed a fight over stiffer punishment for blocking highway or transit traffic, which protest groups have used to bring attention to their causes.
The measure dubbed the “protest bill” was hotly debated Thursday in the House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee before being sent to the House floor on a 9-6, party-line vote. It stems from protests in recent years that have spilled onto Twin Cities interstates or obstructed light-rail lines.
If passed, the new law would subject violators to gross misdemeanors carrying possible $3,000 fines and up to a year in jail. That would put the offense on par with some cases of domestic abuse or criminal sexual conduct.
Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, challenged bill sponsor, Rep. Nick Zerwas, about the intent of his proposal.
“Is your intent to actually stop people from doing this, which you can do in many different ways, or is your intent to scare people from participating in these protests or is your intent to come down hard with a hammer?” Dehn said. “To me, this looks like a hammer right now. And often times these protests take place because people feel that they’ve been wronged, there are injustices in our system and no one is listening or paying attention to them.”
Zerwas, R-Elk River, explained that the freeway protests have become volatile and put both the public and first responders at risk.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, didn’t let up: “You’re saying that it’s OK to place restrictions on rights if it’s in the name of public safety?”
Zerwas responded, “This is already illegal. You have no right to park your Buick across four lanes of I-94. If you believe you have that right, you’re confused.”
A similar bill made it to end-of-session negotiations last year, only to fall away when Gov. Mark Dayton wouldn’t budge on it.
A few days ago, that same House committee endorsed a bill to outlaw use of phones while driving unless hands-free technology is in use. On Thursday, the panel backed a measure that takes it one step further.
The bill would add the negligent use of a cell phones or other devices to the current definitions of criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation. During the hearing, Ryan Verdeck of Glencoe described how his wife Penny was killed three years ago and the distracted driver was only found guilty of careless driving.
“There’s no accountability when it comes to distracted driving when you hurt or kill an innocent person the way things are currently set up,” Verdeck said. “This needs to change. Behavior needs to change, and part of this is punishment. In today’s society, we can’t change behavior without at least a threat of punishment.”
The bill’s author, Republican Rep. Keith Franke of St. Paul Park, said distracted driving is an epidemic, and the judicial system needs better tools to deal with it.
Meanwhile, another suburban lawmaker introduced a bill Thursday to get tougher with repeat DWI offenders. Freshman Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, said the state should strip licenses indefinitely for people who accumulate more than a handful of convictions for the offense.
“There is a point where we have to say, ‘enough is enough,” Anselmo said.
Edina Police Lt. Dan Conboy joined in Anselmo’s call.
“They have some sort of addiction problem. We’d love for them to get the help they need,” Conboy said. “But at some point you have got to put public safety ahead of somebody’s convenience to drive a car.”
The bill would leave a chance for reinstatement of a license after 10 years of clean driving and proven efforts to deal with a chemical dependency.
How many of these bills cross the session finish line remains to be seen.