Friday, October 26, 2018
Attorney General Lori Swanson Calls for Distracted Driving Reforms
Attorney General Lori Swanson today issued a report calling on state policymakers to enact legislation to require hands-free only cell phone use while driving, to increase the penalties for texting while driving, and to require the suspension of the driver’s licenses of repeat offenders.
“We need to change the culture around distracted driving and make it not be okay for people to do this. Drunken driving, which was once largely condoned, is now stigmatized. We should apply some of the successful drunken driving reform measures to distracted driving, which has become an epidemic on the roads,” said Swanson.
Calling distracted driving an “epidemic,” Swanson was joined by police, business and labor groups, and families who lost loved ones to distracted driving. She said her findings were based on an assessment of how other states have handled the issue. Swanson’s office also examined texting while driving charges in Minnesota and noted that the problem is not limited to the youngest drivers. In 2017, drivers age 16-29 represented 22% of drivers but 47% of texting while driving charges; drivers age 30-49 represented 33% of drivers but 42% of texting while driving charges.
Swanson’s office—which has handled over 15,000 driver’s license revocation cases after impaired driving arrests in the last three years—studied the distracted driving reforms utilized in other states. Her report makes the following recommendations (pages 24-28):
- Prohibit handheld cell phones while driving. The Legislature should require hands-free cell phone use while driving. If enacted, Minnesota would be the 17th state to do this. This would improve driver safety and make it easier for police to distinguish whether a driver is making a call or texting.
- Increase penalties for texting while driving. The Legislature should increase the fine for first-time texting while driving to $175. Minnesota law currently imposes a fine of $50 (the same as fine imposed for driving below the posted limit). The Legislature should also increase the fines for repeat offenders, using a graduated schedule like many other states (i.e. the fine for a second offense is more than the first, etc.)
- Suspend licenses of repeat offenders. The Legislature should require the mandatory suspension of a driver’s license for repeat texting while driving offenses. Several states already do this. For example, Maine requires the imposition of 30, 60, and 90 day suspensions for second, third, and fourth time offenders, respectively. Minnesota should follow suit.
- More funding for public awareness. The Legislature should appropriate additional funds to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to implement comprehensive, multi-faceted, anti-texting while driving campaigns paired with periods of heightened, visible law enforcement activity. Such campaigns can be modeled after successful public awareness efforts that—along with enforcement actions—have led to reduced DWI fatalities in Minnesota in the last decade. The Legislature should also modify Minnesota law to make sure the state does not lose out on federal distracted driving grants. This would include banning all cell phone use by minors while driving, placing the minimum fine for repeat offenders in state law, and requiring Minnesota to adopt a rule requiring distracted driving and texting while driving to be covered on all driver’s license examinations.
The Report, entitled “Distracted Driving: A Deadly Epidemic on our Roads,” notes that distracted driving results in over 3,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries annually in the United States. In Minnesota, there are more than 50 deaths each year in proven cases of distracted driving, although the actual number of deaths and injuries is likely much higher. From 2013 to 2017, 265 people were killed in Minnesota and 1,080 suffered serious injuries in distracted driving crashes. One in five crashes resulting in death or serious injury during that period was caused by distracted driving.
One government study estimates that at any given moment during daylight hours, approximately 481,000 drivers are handling a cell phone while driving. The National Safety Council estimates that 1.5 million vehicle accidents occur each year in the United States as a result of texting and other forms of distracted driving. A driver sending a text is 23 times more likely to be involved in a vehicle accident or near miss.