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'Time does matter. Days do count': Advocates urge prompt passage of distracted driving bill

ST. PAUL — A proposal to ban holding a cellphone while behind the wheel is a step away from a floor vote in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division advanced the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, March 6, likely the last stop before it reaches a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said he brought the bill to “address the growing epidemic of distracted driving in our state.”

Texting and driving citations jumped 30 percent in the last year, from 7,357 tickets in 2017 to 9,545 tickets in 2018, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported earlier this year.

Texting while driving is banned under current law. 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, as drivers have said they're handling their phones behind the wheel for other reasons.

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

Opponents on the committee said the bill would have an outsized impact on lower-income people and people of color who might not have cars that can adapt to smartphones.

“Who’s going to get the citation because they don’t have the technology to get the Bluetooth or one-touch? It’s the middle and low-income (people),” Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said. “The wealthy get the benefit.”

Hornstein added an amendment that would provide $250,000 in funding for a third-party group to study traffic stops in Minnesota. He said the report could offer key information about whether existing laws are working and how lawmakers could improve them.

In a letter, 18 families that had lost loved ones to distracted driving-related crashes asked House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka to get the bill over the finish line with “no loopholes.”

“Time does matter. Days do count,” they wrote. "We urge you now to push hands-free across the finish line."

On Tuesday, both leaders said they were committed to getting the bill passed promptly. Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign it into law.