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.
“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.