Two bills to discourage drivers from picking up their phones advanced Wednesday in the Minnesota Senate, where prior attempts to crack down on the practice have languished.
It underscored how the effort to limit cell phone use behind the wheel has emerged as a top concern this session. Legislative leaders are predicting something will pass into law this year, but how far lawmakers will go to punish the practice is still in question.
The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed a bill to make clear that only hands-free phone use is acceptable by motorists. It aligns with a bill already traveling through the state House.
But the panel also backed a bill by Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, that would impose fines up to $500 on repeat offenders and make prison time possible for distracted drivers in serious crashes.
“Some people are getting five days in jail or maybe a couple of months in jail for in essence destroying another family, and I think it’s just deplorable that such light penalties can be given for such important impacts,” Osmek said.
Greg LaVallee, whose 19-year-old son Phil was killed while he was running in 2013, told lawmakers that there have been too many people killed by distracted drivers and too many close calls. The driver who crossed the center line and struck Phil was distracted by a ringing phone; there were no skid marks to indicate she attempted to stop.
“He had hopes of running in the Olympics. All those hopes and dreams were dashed in that moment. His right to life was taken away by that privilege of someone else,” LaVallee said.
He pleaded with lawmakers to pass the cell-phone bills into law. “It will save lives. Please pass this bill into law.”
Osmek’s legislation could be a tougher sell than the straight prohibition. Some lawmakers have flinched at turning the offense into a possible felony, which could be charged if a negligent driver causes a death where the phone is a contributing factor.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is the sponsor of the more-restrained bill. He said he didn’t seek to increase the penalties for distracted driving because passing a hands-free measure has proven hard enough.
“What we’re trying to do here is encourage people to use your phone in a hands-free manner or put it down,” Newman said. “One or the other.”
He altered his bill during Wednesday’s hearing to provide comfort to skeptics. Under the revisions, accessing the Internet or watching videos would be explicitly illegal, but motorists could still listen to audio-based content such as podcasts without running afoul of the law.
There would be an exception to the hands-free law in emergency situations.
State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said Minnesota’s current texting-while-driving ban can be tough to enforce because people who are pulled over quibble about what they were up to. Langer said limiting phone use to hands-free devices or one-touch activation would clear it up.
But he said the purpose isn’t to give police more reason to pull over drivers.
“The goal of this is not for the State Patrol to write more tickets,” Langer said. “The goal of this is to prevent crashes. My hope would be that it would change behavior to the degree that the number of citations actually decreases, not increases.”
Both bills, which moved ahead on voice votes, have at least one more committee stop before a possible Senate floor vote. No one testified in opposition to them.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said much has changed since he first tried several years ago to update Minnesota’s laws to clamp down on phone use by drivers.
“Probably very few of us are as pure as the driven snow on this subject. Using phones is extremely addictive and very, very tempting,” Dibble said. “I think a law like this helps us all to regulate behavior we aspire to uphold. This will help all of us just be better about leaving that phone alone.”