Minn. bill banning use of handling cellphones in vehicles passes first test

ST. PAUL-This year could be the year that Minnesota outlaws handling your cellphone while driving.A bipartisan proposal to mandate "hands-free" use of cellphones for drivers passed a hurdle Tuesday at the state Capitol, when the House public safe...

ST. PAUL-This year could be the year that Minnesota outlaws handling your cellphone while driving.

A bipartisan proposal to mandate "hands-free" use of cellphones for drivers passed a hurdle Tuesday at the state Capitol, when the House public safety committee approved it in a voice vote without objection.

Supporters called the event a "milestone" for a restriction that's been adopted by 15 states, the District of Columbia and numerous cities and towns across the nation.

To be clear, there are probably objectors, but they're being neither public nor loud. Support for the proposed law has grown among lawmakers, and the growing presence of relatives mourning the growing death toll of distracted driving appears to have muted opposition.

The bill's two lead sponsors - Reps. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, and Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said they believe if the bill were to reach the House floor, no lawmaker would dare vote against it. And Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports the idea, and the proposal is also making its way through the Senate.

Still, it's not guaranteed that the bills, which were introduced last year but never progressed to floor votes in either chamber, will make it this year.

Here's Uglem's pitch to skeptics: "It's an inconvenience. I think it's fair to say we're all addicted to cellphones," he said. "We all know we have to change our behavior, but it's hard to do."

Here are some basics.

WHAT WOULD THE LAW DO?

"This bill says just put the phone (down) and drive," summarized Col. Matthew Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol.

Folks could still use any feature of their phones that can be done in a hands-free mode or a way that only requires a single touch of a button or accessory. You could make and answer calls, operate a navigation system, or listen to music or podcasts, to name a few - as long as you're doing so without handling the phone.

You don't have to have the latest smart phone to do this. Many older cellphones have one-touch or voice-command features that owners might not be aware of.

Electronics that are integrated into a vehicle would not be affected by the ban; you could use them. GPS systems that aren't cellphones would also be exempt.

The penalty would be a $50 fine for the first offense and $225 for future offenses. Those are the same penalties as driving while texting, which has been illegal since 2008.

Calling 911, trying to report a crime, or making other emergency calls would still be allowed. Police and other emergency workers would be exempted from the ban.

WHY DO THIS?

People are dying. According to the state Office of Traffic Safety, distracted or inattentive driving is a factor in 1 in 4 Minnesota crashes, resulting in at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries annually.

WHO'S AGAINST IT?

No one has publicly spoken against it this year, but in general, skeptics have included those who believe a ban is a violation of personal freedom and new laws aren't needed.

BAD DRIVING?

Driving carelessly is already against the law in Minnesota, as is texting while driving.

But Langer said it's tricky to enforce those laws.

Texting citations have increased steadily since 2012, but Langer said officers still frequently run into roadside defenses from drivers they pull over.

"They say, 'I wasn't texting I was looking for a phone number,' " Langer said. Under the texting ban, looking for a phone number isn't illegal; under the new proposal, it would be.