Minnesota moves one step closer to sanity on the roads

Published 6:25 am Friday, March 22, 2019

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The Minnesota House moved this state a step closer to reducing vehicular deaths Monday by passing a bill that would require motorists to keep their hands off their cellphones while driving.

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Across the country, 16 states already have adopted common-sense laws that limit drivers to hands-free use of their phones. There is no excuse that will cover manually manipulating a phone while hurtling down the road at 60-plus miles per hour on the freeway or, just as bad, navigating densely trafficked city streets. Distracted driving is now a factor in one out of four crashes in Minnesota.

Will banning hands-on use eliminate all distracted driving? Sadly, no. Good driving requires keeping eyes and mind on the road, hands on the wheel. The hands-free bill tackles manual distraction, and that’s a start. Other states have shown that this simple measure, easy to understand and enforce, helps to reduce accidents.

“We know this bill saves lives,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of HF 50.

Drivers must become more aware of the danger that comes with juggling a phone and the wheel. The carnage from failed attempts at this kind of selfish multi-tasking was on full display at the Capitol earlier this week. Karin Ilg showed a picture of her late husband, whose bicycle was slammed from behind by a distracted driver. She now hands out tiny pieces of the smashed bicycle when she talks to groups. Vijay Dixit carried a portrait of his smiling, bright-eyed daughter, Shreya, to the Capitol on the day the bill was to be heard. Shreya was 19 when she was killed while driving home from college in Wisconsin.

Ilg and Dixit are among the many Minnesotans who have labored hard to build a broad coalition and bipartisan commitments that withstood last year’s legislative debacle, when the bill was felled by political agendas. Democratic and Republican supporters persevered and, despite a protracted debate, the final House vote on Monday was solidly bipartisan. In the Senate, Republican Scott Newman of Hutchinson is carrying the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he expects a vote on Monday, also with bipartisan support. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has said he is prepared to sign the bill when it arrives. These are the elements of good lawmaking.

But for the legislation to have its intended impact, more must be done. Mike Hanson, director of the state Office of Traffic Safety, said his office is prepared to launch a massive awareness campaign after the law is enacted, fueled by $700,000 in federal funds over the next two years. The aim, Hanson said, is to help drivers retrain themselves. “We’re so addicted to our devices,” Hanson said, “what we need is a culture change.” Hanson said other states with hands-free laws have seen an average 15 percent drop in fatalities in the first year or two. “In Minnesota, that’s 53 lives saved a year,” he said.

Any time spent on Minnesota roads shows how ubiquitous cellphone use has become among drivers. It’s time to recognize there is no way to do that safely and that no call, no text, no Facebook post is worth a life.