Minnesota legislators and advocates unveiled a new effort Monday to ban cellphone use without a hands-free device and increase penalties for texting while driving, in the face of rising concerns about distracted motoring.
"I pray you do not have to go through what I've had to go through this past year," Joanne Lofgren Ploetz said at a Capitol news conference, wearing her husband's military jacket. Her husband, John Ploetz, was killed in December 2017 by a woman who was texting when she hit his car.
Between 2013 and 2017, distracted driving contributed to 20 percent of Minnesota crashes, killing 53 people every year on average, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Measures to require hands-free devices when using a cellphone while driving previously stalled, most recently last year when a flurry of activity late in the legislative session came up short.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is the chief author in the Senate and was joined by Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, signaling widespread, bipartisan support at the Legislature. Democrats won the House majority in the 2018 election and are likely to move forward with a bill.
A separate bipartisan bill would increase penalties for texting while driving and treat texting drivers who kill or maim like drunks who do the same.
"There's really a slaughter on the highways in Minnesota," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said at a forum with other legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz.
"We'll sign a distracted driving bill, I believe, this year, if they get it to us," Walz said.
A number of business lobbyists, including from the Minnesota Trucking Association, also appeared at a news conference to lend support.
Legislators sidestepped questions about whether all cellphone use should be banned, emphasizing the need to compromise on a hands-free measure first.
A study from Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that talking on a cellphone with a hands-free device while driving is just as distracting as a conversation using a hand-held phone. Other studies have shown that daydreaming, eating and adjusting radio and temperature controls are at least as likely to cause distracted driving crashes.
Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, cited data collected by the Georgia Legislature, which showed an immediate decline in crashes in the states that have passed a hands-free law.
The data purport to use National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures to show significant decreases — more than 20 percent in some instances — in fatalities in the states that have passed hands-free laws.
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report. J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042