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Distracted driving bills clear another hurdle in Minnesota Legislature

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ST. PAUL - A set of bills aimed at cracking down on the use of cellphones behind the wheel cleared another hurdle Tuesday, Feb. 5.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety advanced to another Senate committee the proposals that would outlaw the use of phones while driving outside a hands-free mode and set penalties for causing a crash that causes injury or death while using a cellphone equal to those for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Texting while driving is banned under current law. And those found in violation face petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for the first offense. But law enforcement officers have had trouble enforcing the law.

Senate File 91 would set petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for drivers found using their phones without using a hands-free setting. Use of a phone for GPS navigation or emergency communication would be exempt under the proposal.

And while the bill passed with an amendment, committee members raised concerns about the measure reducing instances of distracted driving. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he worried the bill would lead more drivers to text out of fear of getting caught placing a phone call.

“I’m afraid we’re going to drive them into more texting and I don’t want to do that,” Ingebrigtsen said.

“This bill is not perfect," the bill's sponsor Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, responded. But it was worth passing in an attempt to reduce distractions behind the wheel and accidents that can result, he said.

Another bill, Senate File 75, also passed through the committee after it was amended to adjust some of the heightened penalties for those found texting and driving. The bill would also require the state to include distracted driving training in driver's education courses and stiffen penalties for texting and driving related crashes that result in injury or death.

Both bills move now to the Senate Finance Committee.

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