Mar. 11, 2019

In an attempt to curb the growing risk of Minnesota car crashes caused by distracted driving, lawmakers have proposed stronger laws aimed at people who drive distracted, especially targeting those who use their cellphones while driving. A previous attempt at stricter distracted driving laws made it to the Legislature in 2018 but got no further. Recently the state’s then-attorney general proposed measures to make the roads safer from people who drive while distracted.

Stricter Distracted Driving Measures Proposed

Calling distracted driving an “epidemic,” in 2018 then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson proposed measures that would hand out harsher punishments to people who drive while distracted. Among the proposed measures:

  • Requiring all cellphone use while driving to be hands-free
  • Increasing the penalties for anyone caught texting while driving from $50 to $175
  • Suspending driver’s licenses of repeated offenders

“We need to change the culture around distracted driving and make it not be OK for people to do this,” Swanson said in a press release when she proposed the changes. “Drunken driving, which was once largely condoned, is now stigmatized. We should apply some of the successful drunken driving reform measures to distracted driving, which has become an epidemic on the roads.”

According to Swanson, 16 other states already require drivers to use their cellphones only when the devices are hands-free.  

Distracted Driving Stakes are High

In a report issued in Oct. 2018, Swanson noted that between 2013 and 2017, 265 people died in Minnesota car crashes linked to distracted driving, while another 1,080 sustained serious injuries. During the same period, one-fifth of all crashes that resulted in either fatalities or serious injuries were caused by distracted driving, making it the fourth-leading cause of serious crashes. Each year, more than 50 deaths on the road are attributed to distracted driving.

Although much of the blame is directed at the youngest drivers, even older drivers have been caught texting while they were driving. In 2017, 47 percent of drivers who received texting-while-driving charges were between the ages of 16 and 29. That same year, 42 percent of drivers facing the same charges were between the ages of 30 and 49.

A report from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety notes that in 2017, 7,357 drivers received citations for texting and driving, a dramatic 23 percent increase from the year before.

Distracted Driving Charges Increase

Swanson isn’t the only lawmaker in Minnesota to propose tougher sanctions. Senator David Osmek announced in Dec. 2018 that he wants to see distracted drivers who cause injury or death face jail time and fines similar to those who are charged with driving under the influence.

Minnesota driving laws make it illegal for drivers to read, compose or send texts or e-mails while the vehicle they are driving is in motion or is part of traffic, even if that traffic is stopped. Drivers with a permit or provisional driver’s license are prohibited from using a cellphone at all unless they are making an emergency 911 call. Enforcing the no texting while driving rule is difficult, so legislators hope the stricter rules will aid police. The lax laws, meanwhile, do little to discourage people from texting while driving.

The move to increase Minnesota distracted driving penalties is gaining momentum, with the state’s Senate Committee on Transportation Finance and Policy voting to advance Senate Files 75 and 91. Those files would make it mandatory that all cellphone use while driving be hands-free and increase penalties for causing a crash while texting to similar levels as seen with drunk driving.

Safety experts estimate that such laws would reduce fatalities by about 16 percent.

“If you take a look at the number of fatalities we have in this state, and if we can get a 16 percent decrease in the year that follows implementing hands-free, that’ll be about 55 people whose deaths could have been prevented,” said Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council.

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