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Hands-free driving bill takes first step forward in the Capitol

Danielle Wishard-Tudor on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, became emotional as she spoke with Minnesota lawmakers about her brother Jean Claude Paquier Wishard (pictured in photo) who died in a 2017 distracted driving crash. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- A proposal to ban drivers from holding cell phones behind the wheel took its first step forward on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The bill, House File 50, passed through the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee on a voice vote following emotional testimony from family members of people who'd died in texting and driving related accidents.

The bill moves now to the House Ways and Means Committee. A twin bill introduced in the Senate is set to have its first hearing Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Transportation Finance and Policy.

Texting while driving is banned under current law. And those found in violation face petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for the first offense. But law enforcement officers have had trouble enforcing the law, as drivers have said they're handling their phones behind the wheel for other reasons.

The first bill would set petty misdemeanor charges and the $50 fine for drivers found using their phones without using a hands-free or one-touch setting. Use of a phone for GPS navigation or emergency communication would be exempt under the proposal.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, the bill's author, said it was important that lawmakers move to prevent instances of distracted driving on Minnesota's roadways. Distracted driving contributed to one in five crashes in Minnesota between 2013 and 2017, according to the Department of Public Safety. An average of 53 people were killed each year as a result.

"If we just save one life through passage of this bill, we will have done our jobs," the Minneapolis Democrat said, "but the data shows that we'll be saving many more."

Safety, law enforcement and business officials testified in the bill's favor along with family members that had lost loved ones in distracted driving-related accidents.

Danielle Wishard-Tudor became visibly distraught when she listed the other countries that had passed similar legislation and told lawmakers about her brother Jean Claude Paquier Wishard, who was killed in a distracted driving-related crash in 2017.

"My brother died in his own lane being a responsible driver," Wishard-Tudor said. "My brother's life was worth more than someone's choice to get distracted for 30 seconds. His life was worth more than that."

An opponent, meanwhile, said the drivers found holding their phones behind the wheel shouldn't face the same penalties as drivers found texting and disputed the possible downturn in distracted driving crashes that would result if the bill became law.

"I thought we settled how we were not in favor of making it illegal to simply hold a cell phone in your hand while driving last session," Bret Collier, of Big Lake, said. "The only thing this bill will do is result in thousands of drivers being ticketed."

Legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz have said they anticipated that lawmakers in either chamber would be willing to pass and Walz would be willing to sign into law additional restrictions against distracted driving.

If approved, the measure would take effect in August.