‘They're not happy:' House, Senate distracted driving bills hinge on GPS rules

Minnesota lawmakers must navigate differences over global positioning system rules before passing legislation to ban drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode.

The House is scheduled to vote Monday on its version of the legislation, which some family members of distracted driving victims favor. The Senate is poised to vote on its bill within two weeks, its lead author said.

The bills have a major difference: the Senate version exempts GPS usage from the hands-free requirement. Vijay Dixit, whose daughter Shreya died in a 2007 crash, called it a loophole. Drivers could claim to police during traffic stops that they were looking at GPS and not doing a banned activity, like reading a text, he said.

“Anything is better than nothing,” Dixit said in the living room of his Eden Prairie home, surrounded by photos of his daughter. “But I tell you, I can speak for many of the grieving families. They’re not happy.”

Laurie Hevier of St. Paul, whose mother died in 2009 when a distracted driver hit her while walking beside a Wisconsin road, echoed Dixit’s concerns.

“Anytime there’s an exception, you kind of give a free pass to people,” Hevier said in a telephone interview.

In interviews with the lead authors of the House and Senate bills, it appeared possible that the GPS exemption would be included in any bill that gets to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk.

State Sen. Scott Newman, the Senate Transportation committee chairman, said he personally preferred that his bill didn’t include the exemption. But some fellow senators want to keep the GPS rules as they are now, Newman said.

“There was some opposition by some senators if we began removing the right for folks to use their GPS in the fashion they have in the past,” said Newman, R-Hutchinson. “So, I’ve intentionally kept that out.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, chairman of the House Transportation committee, said the GPS exemption would make the hands-free requirement less safe.

“We resisted it simply because this is much safer. We don’t want people fiddling around with their (phones) and adding another distraction,” Hornstein said. But, when asked if the GPS issue was a dealbreaker, he said, “This will not unravel simply because there’s different House and Senate versions.”

Both bills require that drivers use hands-free technology to talk on the phone or use various other functions. Texting while driving is already illegal in Minnesota.

Newman, Hornstein, and various stakeholders – including victims’ families – have been pushing for the tougher restrictions for years. Hornstein credited the family members for moving the debate this far.

“I think there’s been a real change of heart in the Legislature over the years,” said Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “Now we’re really at the cusp of passing this important legislation.”

Both lawmakers said they were optimistic that a final bill would get to Walz’s desk by the Legislature’s spring break in mid-April.

“Without question, this is as close as it’s been. I’m now getting to the point where I’m actually hopeful it’s going to happen,” Newman said.