Committee considers distracted driving regulations

The Senate Transportation Committee considered two bills this week aimed at making Minnesota’s roads safer. The first would prohibit the use of cellphones while driving or part of traffic (such as at a stoplight), unless the driver is using a hands-free device. Drivers only would be able to use a cellphone if their vehicle is legally pulled over to the side of the road and not obstructing traffic. Use of GPS or navigational systems or audio-based content that is temporarily affixed to the vehicle still would be permitted. (S.F. 91)

The second bill would increase the current penalty for texting while driving. Under current law, texting while driving is a petty misdemeanor carrying a $50 base fine, which is increased for subsequent violations. The proposed legislation would increase the penalty to a misdemeanor and increase fines to $150 for the first offense, $300 for the second offense, and $500 for the third. After the third offense, a driver would be subject to forfeiture of their cellphone. The bill’s author argued higher penalties may be more effective than banning the use of cellphones all together. (S.F. 75)

The second bill also would require driver education programs to include instruction on distracted driving, and it would add operating a cellphone in a negligent manner without a hands-free setting to the definitions of criminal vehicular homicide, great bodily harm, bodily harm, and death of an unborn child.

Both bills were supported by friends and family members of victims of distracted driving-related accidents in Minnesota. The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes every year, or 64% of all road accidents. In the past few years, there have been an average of 59 deaths each year on Minnesota roads due to distracted driving and 223 serious injuries. Auto premiums in the past three years are up 15%, partially attributable to claims due to distracted driving.

Both bills were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. A similar version of the hands-free cellphone bill also is making progress in the House of Representatives.