ST PAUL, Minn. — As families of distracted driving victims looked on, the Minnesota Senate Monday passed the hands-free cell phone bill by an overwhelming 56 to 10 tally.
If the legislation becomes law, it would bar drivers from holding a phone while driving. Calls and other phone functions would have to be done in voice-activated mode only.
It would be a simple misdemeanor, carrying a $350 fine on a second violation.
"This is a public safety issue that puts everyone in danger," Sen. Scott Newman, the Hutchinson Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told colleagues.
"All I’m asking for in this bill is just put your phone down, put your eyes back on the road where they belong."
Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican from Elbow Lake, opposed the bill in it's current form, citing complaints he's received from small business owners who use their vehicles as a traveling office.
"He's concerned about being able to run his small business when he drives to and from his job site because that’s his office time. That’s how he makes sales for his next customers to come in," Sen. Westrom said.
Sen. Jim Carlson, the Eagan Democrat who first proposed the cell phone crackdown in 2008, thanked the families of victims for their tireless efforts.
"It pains me to see them have to come over and over and over to committees to present what probably is the worst experience of their lives," Sen. Carlson said.
The margin of victory was remarkable considering the hands-free bill couldn't get a real hearing in the Senate in 2018. There were cheers, tears and embraces in the Senate Gallery when the board lit up showing 56 "yes" votes.
"Many of those people who were part of the overwhelming support were some of the same opponents we were dealing with last year," Greg Tikalksy of New Prague said.
Tikalsky and his family have been to the Capitol many times to tell the story of Greg's father Joe, a longtime school bus driver struck and killed while checking his mailbox on a rural highway. The woman who killed Joe Tikalsky was replying to an email from her daughter.
"I think we should all take comfort in the fact we were all able to convince people, change some minds and I think that came out in some of the testimony today."
The Senate's version differs somewhat from the hands-free bill passed last week by the House. The House has an opportunity to just accept the Senate language, but that probably won't happen.
That sets the stage for a House/Senate conference committee, which will try to iron out the differences. Each chamber will appoint members to that joint panel, which will craft a compromise version of the bill.
The Senate version includes an exception for GPS, allowing people to manually type in addresses into GPS or map apps.
The Senate version now makes it clear you can hold your phone if you’re on private property or pulled all the way out of traffic with the car stopped.
The Senate version calls for $300 fine on second offense, compared to $250 in the House version.
The House version includes a study of profiling after the bill becomes law in August, to determine if people of color are ticketed more than white drivers. The study would also delve into whether access to voice-activated equipment is a factor in compliance.
The Senate version now includes an exception that allows people to tuck a cell phone between a head covering and their ears. Some Muslim women wedge a cell phone between their hijab and an ear while driving.
That amendment was offered by Sen. Bobby Champion of Minneapolis, who argued that it's another form of "hands free" driving, as long as the number is dialed before the vehicle starts moving.
Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville said he could go along with that, as long as women aren't pulling those phones out of their hijabs to dial new numbers and start new calls while the vehicle is moving.