Most Minnesotans want laws against using cellphones while driving to be as tough as those against drunken driving, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
In all, 78 percent of those polled said texting or checking Facebook while driving should be treated equal to or more severely than drunken driving. Even more, 79 percent, say it should be illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving.
At the same time, most of those polled say they personally aren’t the problem: 90 percent say they rarely or never text or look at e-mail or social media while behind the wheel — even at a stoplight.
A bill in the Legislature would make Minnesota the 15th state, along with Washington, D.C., to ban talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving. But the measure appears to be stalled.
Distracted driving seems to be a rare issue of public agreement in a politically divided time. That’s likely in part because nearly every driver, no matter their party affiliation or ZIP code, has been annoyed to see a motorist veering out of a lane, driving at erratic speeds or idling at a green stoplight while looking at a smartphone.
The poll of 800 registered voters was conducted between April 24 and 26, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll found that younger drivers were mostly likely to admit to illegal behavior behind the wheel, with 22 percent of those ages 18 to 34 saying they often or occasionally text or check e-mail or social media while driving. Only 10 percent of all age groups polled said they do that.
“I don’t think most people’s brains can do that kind of thing simultaneously,” said Pat Karsten, 61, who participated in the poll. The Robbinsdale resident said she never texts or looks at Facebook while driving. In Minnesota, it’s illegal for drivers to read, send texts and e-mails and access the web while the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic, including at a stop sign or stoplight.
The poll’s results seem to defy what police officers, public safety advocates and even other drivers see on the road.
“I think people are kind of fibbing,” said Jon Cummings, founder of the Minnesotans for Safe Driving. “I think they’re fooling themselves. They just don’t want to admit it. At almost every intersection I stop at, I look over and somebody is texting. It’s just everywhere.”
More than a quarter of fatal and serious injury crashes in the state involve a distracted driver.
On the roads every day, the State Patrol sees the problem up close. And it’s not just cellphones, but laptops and tablets that drivers are using behind the wheel, said trooper Scott Rudeen.
“I stopped a woman who was e-mailing and she said she just had to e-mail a co-worker,” Rudeen said. “When I came back to give her a citation, she was still e-mailing.”
At least one poll participant, Gary Jenson, reluctantly admitted to frequent cellphone checks while driving. The 45-year-old Pine City resident said his phone will ding, enticing him to glance at a text on the homescreen. He rarely punches out a response, he said, but admitted he’s done so while driving “out in the country” or at a stoplight.
“It’s not acceptable,” Jenson said. “We’ve gotten so accustomed to doing it. You can do something that’s dangerous over and over … because [you] get away with it.”
In Minnesota, drunken drivers face heftier fines and sometimes jail time for their offenses, depending on their blood alcohol level and whether a child was in the car or someone was hurt. A driver caught texting for the first time faces a $50 fine and $225 for repeated offenses.
If laws were tougher, Jenson said, maybe people would stop. He suggested that penalties should be more severe than a speeding ticket but less severe than a drunken driving offense. Repeat offenders should lose their license and their insurance should go up, he added, because “let’s face it, distracted drivers are going to get into more accidents.”
Of those surveyed in the Minnesota Poll, 71 percent said those texting or checking social media while driving should receive the same stiff penalties as drunken drivers. Another 7 percent said it should be punished more severely, while just 21 percent said the punishment should be less severe than a drunken driving offense.
Poll participant Craig Poucher, 32, of St. Anthony, said he eventually would support making it illegal to use a hand-held cellphone while driving. But not yet — he said he fears it would penalize people who own older cars that don’t have hands-free technology.
People sometimes need directions or have to confirm a meeting, Poucher said, noting he doesn’t text or look at social media while behind the wheel. He rarely even talks on the phone in the car.
“It’s usually a phone call from my wife who needs me to pick up a gallon of milk,” he said, adding he uses Bluetooth to talk hands free. “I’m a guy, so I usually don’t talk very long on the phone.”
But people need to realize there’s a danger associated with even talking on the phone, Poucher said: “I was rear-ended by a driver who was on her phone.”
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788