Hands-free cell phone restrictions to pass this year, Minnesota lawmakers say

After many failed attempts, this is the year that Minnesota lawmakers will ban drivers from using cell phones in their cars without hands-free technology, legislative leaders and Governor Tim Walz said Monday.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, business groups, the Minnesota State Patrol and family members whose loved ones were killed by distracted drivers said the legislation will save lives. Distracted drivers in Minnesota killed 59 people and injured 223 in 2017, they said.

“It seems to be to be comparable to what drunk driving was in the 20th century,” said state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “We are now dealing with cell phones in the 21st century.”

Drivers would face a $50 fine – the same penalty that texting while driving currently carries – unless they’re using voice-activated calling or one-touch features on their cell phones. Newman and state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minnesota, said they expected to pass a version of the bill without raising the penalties, then then have what’s likely to be a tougher debate over what the penalties should be.

Newman and Hornstein hold the powerful chairmanships of the transportation committees in their respective houses.

Minnesota would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia to require hands-free cell phone use in cars. Illinois is the only Midwestern state that currently outlaws handheld phones for drivers.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, and the minority leaders in each chamber have all endorsed hands-free legislation. While meeting with reporters Monday, Hortman referred to the deaths caused by distracted drivers as “a slaughter.” Gazelka said he’s had a change of mind on the legislation.

“This was an issue that I was not in favor of and now am in favor of it,” Gazelka said. “We just have to be able to step in and help people help themselves when, for whatever reason, they can’t stop holding their phone.”

But Senate Democratic Leader Tom Bakk issued a warning to lawmakers about raising the penalties too high in what he called “election gotcha amendments.”

“I hope to be able to vote for a bill. I’m not going to vote for a bill that makes talking on your phone or texting on your phone a felony,” Bakk said.

Texting drivers: ‘a menace’

Penalties are likely to be a major focus as the anti-distracted driving legislation moves forward. Separately on Monday, two Republican state lawmakers unveiled a bill allowing the state to seize cell phones from people caught texting while driving for a third time. The measure would also triple the cost of a first-offense fine to $150.

State Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said lawmakers should focus on increasing current penalties instead of cell phone use as a whole. He said repeat texting offenders were “a menace.”

“We have to get people’s attention to stop texting while driving,” he told reporters during a news conference.

Nevertheless, Osmek said he had signed on to the bipartisan distracted driving bill being pushed by Newman and Hornstein and said he viewed his bill as complementary, not competitive, legislation.

‘Not making progress’

For Vijay Dixit of Eden Prairie, progress on hands-free legislation has been a long time coming. Dixit’s daughter, Shreya, was hit and killed by a distracted driver in 2007.

“Let us stop having these kinds of news conferences. Let’s start saving lives,” he said during a news conference rolling out the bill at the state Capitol. “We are not making progress. The progress can be made when we change the culture of driving in this country.”

The state needs to pay for an ad blitz if lawmakers outlaw drivers from holding cell phones, and the Legislature needs to fund the campaign instead of requiring the state Transportation Department to pay for it, Bakk said.

“This is a significant change,” he said.

Gov. Tim Walz said he will sign a distracted driving bill if it gets to his desk. He declined to say what the penalties should be. That decision should be left to lawmakers, he said.