Bill would allow only hands-free cell use for drivers

Rhonda Maurer talks about the death of two relatives in a crash involving a distracted driver. Behind her sponsors of a cell phone restriction bill: Republican Rep. Mark Uglem of Champlin, DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis and DFL Sen. Jim Carlson of Eagan. Brian Bakst | MPR News

A new push to curb cell phone use by Minnesota drivers aims to make it illegal to use anything other than hands-free devices while at the wheel.

The bill outlined Tuesday has bipartisan sponsors and backing from safety advocates and the insurance industry. But past efforts to clamp down on smartphone activity by drivers has encountered resistance, aside from a texting-while-driving ban that took years to enact.

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, supports the bill and said as a paramedic he’s seen firsthand the aftermath of distracted driving. He equated the restriction to highway guardrails meant to keep cars on the road, and he noted that modern cars are built with Bluetooth technology that make compliance easier.

“We are not taking away your right to speak on the phone in the car,” Newberger said. “You can still talk on the phone. You just have to be hands free.”

The proposal would build off a texting-while-driving ban already in Minnesota law. It calls for escalating penalties depending on how often a driver is caught breaking the law, with a $225 fine for repeat offenders.

There would be exemptions for devices used exclusively for navigational purposes and calls made to emergency responders.

Minnesota would join 14 other states in making it illegal to use a hand-held device while driving.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, held up an iPhone at a news conference to emphasize his point.

“In terms of a message we want to send through this bill to Minnesota, it’s simply this: Put this down. Put it away when you’re driving.”

He added later, “When you’re using this phone, you’re putting yourself and others at risk.”

Rhonda Maurer of Sauk Rapids shared the account of an accident that claimed the lives of her uncle, Chuck, and her 10-year-old cousin, Cassy. The van they were in was struck by a driver who ran a red light while, according to court records, sending messages over social media.

“We need to get off our phones while we are behind the wheel,” Maurer said. “It is our responsibility to make our roads safe. And if attitudes and behaviors don’t change about distracted driving, it could easily happen to you next.”

Newberger and fellow Republican Rep. Mark Uglem of Champlin are part of this year’s push. That’s notable given the GOP control of the Legislature.

But Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he’s not convinced people are ready to set down their phones.

“They like their freedom,” Limmer said.

He said talking on a phone differs from squinting to see or craft a text.

“Talking on a phone is somewhat different,” Limmer said. “It can often be akin to more like drinking a Coke from the local McDonald’s drive-up window, which seems to be very popular in this state.”

  • wjc

    C’mon Sen. Limmer! Freedom doesn’t mean being able to do anything at any time. People can drive without taking a phone call, or they can get a hands-free device. Sometimes Sen. Limmer really has no clue at all.

  • rosswilliams

    There is no evidence it makes any difference whether people are talking hands free or not. Either way talking on the phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. In fact, its as dangerous as driving while very, very drunk. The only reason people think its safe is that they are too distracted to notice the danger to themselves and others.

    Of course this has no chance of this passing since most of the legislators are talking all the time, whether driving or not. Their time is too important to pull over just because they need to talk to someone.

  • Mike Worcester

    I’d be curious to know what the breakdown is of vehicles on the road that do and do not have the option of cell phone connectivity. Mine does but is a 2016. It’s nice to say that folks should use the “onboard” options, but is that always feasible?