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Banning drivers' cell-phone use appears a non-starter in Minnesota

Banning all driver cell phone use is a step too far for Minnesota, according to Sen. Warren Limmer.
Creative Commons photo by Flickr user bark
Banning all driver cell phone use is a step too far for Minnesota, according to Sen. Warren Limmer.

The National Transportation Board’s "request" that all states ban drivers from using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving is not likely to be received warmly in Minnesota.

Sen. Warren Limmer
Sen. Warren Limmer

"The federal government shouldn’t be trying to tell the states how to conduct their business," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who is chairman of the Senate's Judicial and Public Safety Committee.

Limmer said that any effort by the feds to dictate state law would run into stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But he suspects a sizable number of DFLers would also resist a ban on cell phone use.

He noted that any change in law would have to go through the legislative process in Minnesota.

During a public radio interview earlier today, Gov. Mark Dayton also showed some reluctance in pushing forward such a ban. He said he needed time to consider how enforceable such a law would be.

Texting while driving already illegal
Limmer noted that two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill making texting while driving illegal.

But this idea, Limmer said, is a step too far. Cell phone usage while driving has become "necessary" for people in many professions. He said that as a Realtor, he's become dependent on using a phone while driving, as have people in many other trades and professions.

At this point, the NSTB request has no force of law. But that doesn't mean that ultimately a federal organization doesn't carry huge clout when it comes to shaping state laws, especially traffic laws.

In Minnesota's case, Limmer pointed to two examples where the feds used the power of cash to get what it wanted. Both the state's seat-belt law and lowering the intoxication level to 0.08 were a direct result of feds threatening to withhold federal highway funds from states that resisted changing to federal standards.

"In this case, I think they [the NTSB] is planting a seed for policy changes down the line," said Limmer.

But before the feds could tie funding to a ban on cells, Limmer said he believes Congress would have to act in support of a ban.

It is, after all, Congress that has the say on federal highway funds.

There have been legislative efforts to put a cell phone ban in place in Minnesota in recent years, Limmer said. But those have failed to advance.

At this point, at least, Limmer said he believes there's very little public pressure on members of either party to move forward on a ban proposal that would include both hand-held and hand-free cells phones.

"There's always people who gripe about the other guy driving carelessly while using a cell phone," Limmer said. "But where does this end? There are so many distractions. There are women putting on lipstick, men shaving, people changing stations on their radio. The list is endless."

Missouri accident prompts NTSB call
The five members of the NTSB, who voted unanimously in support of the ban, used a fatal accident in Missouri, in which 38 schoolchildren were injured, as a prime example of why the ban should be in place.

In that crash in August, 2010, a 19-year-old driver of a pickup truck crashed into the rear of a truck.  A school bus then crashed into the pickup, and a second school bus then crashed into the first bus.

The driver of the pickup, who was killed, had sent 11 texts in the 11 minutes leading up to the crash. A 15-year-old passenger on one of the school buses also was killed, and 38 others were injured.

Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NSTB, said the crash is "a big red flag for all drivers."

Limmer, though, sees another big red flag in all of this: "Washington sticking its nose into the business of the states." 

Given the current political makeup of the Legislature, Limmer believes there would be huge resistance to any policy directives from Washington, even if highway funds were involved.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (17)

Hmm. Maybe they should ban driving while using a cell phone.

While only anecdotal, my observation has been in complete agreement with NTSB.

Still, I think we already have the laws in place--if you're driving like a moron, regardless of cell phone usage, you should be pulled over and fined. The problem is that there are too many people driving like morons and not enough of them being pulled over...at least not often enough to be a deterrent. Enforce the present laws and maybe up the fines for stupid driving.

The chances that a bunch of politicians are going to consider other people's safety over their own convenience is a non-starter all right.

Cell phone use while driving is not "necessary" at all, any more than driving home from the bar loaded is. And all the evidence says they are equally dangerous to others.

I wish democrats would once in a while suggest something as a good idea that everyone should practice but refrain from making that behavior the law.

Seriously. Even on those rare occasions when a democrat comes up with an idea I agree with they have to ruin it by making it mandatory.

If all cell use is banned including handsfree the cell-phone logs make for a "slam-dunk" lawsuit, especially in car that only has a driver. It's a "gotcha" factor more than actual proof of fault. It will mean full employment for the "ambulance chaser" that advertise on TV and the radio. These lawyers tend to support and donate to democrats.

....I wish democrats would once in a while suggest something as a good idea that everyone should practice but refrain from making that behavior the law....

DOMA, anyone?

Gay marriage doesn't kill busloads of people every year. But hey, it deserves both a law and a constitutional amendment.

By the way, Mr. Lang, if you don't think every lawyer or insurance company involved in accidents doesn't already check phone records and the on-board tracking computer, you're way behind the times.

By the way, I bet you thought than On-Star was for your benefit and that their notifying you when you should change the oil was just a kindly service...

We lived in England recently and they do not permit cell phone use while driving unless the driver is using a hands-free device. This was not a major inconvenience and almost certainly resulted in safer driving. Unless we want to reject significant federal highway funding, we will need to be more receptive to federal suggestions.

I wonder how Sen. Limmer would feel if a fellow Realtor, talking on the necessary phone while driving, slammed into a school bus carrying one of his kids?
The lipstick argument doesn't hold any weight. Of course, there are always going to be people doing foolish things while driving. That will happen as long as people drive cars.
But banning cell-phone use while driving can end a huge chunk of that foolishness and save lives. Just get it done. And thanks to Rep. Hornstein for spearheading the fight.

It would be better if the comments didn't focus so much on lawyers and lawsuits but on logic and public safety. Oh well, that means a reasonable law banning unsafe activity doesn't stand a chance.

It's high time this discussion of impaired driving caused by electronics begins. The Board has just put together the evidence and said that no one should be able to blithely endanger so many people on the road.

This is how change happens: some authority resolutely challenges a pattern of behavior, with evidence that the behavior is harmful.

People talk, state and local laws change. It's not necessary for federal law to change.

Cell phone use impairs its users as much as alcohol does, but let's not impair one's privileges to operate a multi-ton vehicle on public streets when the rights of a relationship between one person and his phone are threatened. We could even enshrine that in the constitution.

I resonate with commenters #1 and #2, and would add that it also is moronic for a legislator to oppose something just because the feds suggested it.

Dennis, are you arguing that you have a right to engage in behavior that knowingly increases the risks of people to serious injury or death, without any regulations?

I suppose you could argue those harmed can simply sue you for damages, but that's going to be more than a dollar short and a day late.

Not to mention the cries of the right wing about how we so desperately need tort reform.

I moved here from Chicago three years ago. In the city of Chicago, cell phone use while driving is only permitted if you are using a hands-free device. This is a reasonable compromise.

How in the world did professional people like realtors ever do business before cell phones? Come on, people, you do not need to be on your cell phone every moment of the day. I see people in my neighborhood--and elsewhere--get in their cars, start their motors, and get out their cell phone. They could wait 5 minutes, call, and then get on the road. If you must use a cell phone, get off the freeway.
I see cell phone use from a different perspective. I walk in my neighborhood a lot and in the afternoon, especially, I see dozens and dozens of people driving and on their cell phones. When I try to cross a street that does not have signals, I risk my life and that of my dog. I don't know that a cell phone user has ever stopped for us. They can't see us because all their attention is on the phone. I just saw someone on a cell phone make a U-turn at a busy intersection. Everyone survived, but it wasn't for lack of her trying. And I doubt that most of these people are professionals of any kind. They don't look like it; they don't dress like it.

I can't help thinking that the only way to change the cell phone behavior of drivers is to make it hit their wallet when it becomes bad behavior. If insurance companies started issuing policies with riders denying claims if an accident involved cell phone use, along with a stiff rise in premiums when any citation for a moving violation listed cell phone use as a contributing factor, some of these fools would get over their "need" for instant communication.

If you need to make a call, pull over on the shoulder.

Mt Strader, you have the answer!

Every insurance claim should require that both parties agree to allow the company the authority to review the use of the policy holder's cell phone record as to time of activity.

That would solve a lot of the problem of the bad driver excuse that the chairman of the committee was so enamored with during his obvious weak defense of cell phone use while driving.

As stated earlier, there has been repeated evidence that doing so is equivalent to driving while intoxicated.

There is no other reason needed than that to welcome the relief and improve the safety of others than removing the driving privileges of an offender.

Then, lets see how important talking of a cell phone is to a realator.

In my view, driving while cell-phoning is premeditated endangerment to every surrounding motorist and should be classified as equally destructive as is reckless driving.

Talk of cell phone bans in cars always bugs me. Not because I disagree with the concept. More because the ban-backers are always missing the forest for the trees, and just seem to be looking for a self-righteous, no-brainer crusade to get behind. Either to feel better about themselves, I mean - we are SAVING LIVES here, or to have a vote registered that will be popular with the masses. I equate it to putting a "peace" bumper sticker on your car.

Improving transportation safety by going after cell phone use is like wasting precious time by trying to put out a fire on a quickly sinking ship. The wrong problem is being addressed.

Let's be honest for once. The most dangerous thing on the road is a bad driver. I'm not talking about a good driver with bad habits, I am talking about a bad driver, and it doesn't matter what kind of habits they have. Their hands can be at 10 and 2 and their eyes may never leave the road, but they are still the most dangerous thing out there.

I am not saying that I have never been annoyed by a driver whose abilities are being reduced by cell phone use. I am saying that the majority of annoying, and dangerous, situations that I have been in while either driving, or being a passenger, were caused by bad driving ability. Not bad habits.

I would rather be a passenger in a vehicle with a good driver that is talking on a cell phone than with a bad driver that is focused on the road.

Don't waste time on a cell phone ban. Instead, implement an extremely difficult performance portion of the standard driving test. This portion of the test must be completed every two years and in cold weather climates, a healthy amount of ice-time would be required.

Failing this portion of the test means you are limited to driving a low horsepower vehicle with a big orange cone perched on top. The left lane will be off-limits except when within 2 miles of a left lane exit. Then again, considering the drivers, better make that within 4 miles of a left lane exit.