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Our view: Get hands-free cell phone bill to governor’s desk

April 10, 2019 GMT

There’s a good chance Minnesota will in the coming months join 17 other states in enacting a hands-free cell phone law. In our view, it can’t happen soon enough.

This new law will make the use of hand-held cell phones illegal while driving. Both the Minnesota House and Senate have approved different versions of the bill by wide, bipartisan margins. The bill now goes to a conference committee where differences in the two versions will be hammered out.

Eventually, the bill should make its way to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz, who has said he will sign a hands-free bill this legislative session.

The few Minnesotans opposed to a hands-free law (70 percent approve of such a law, according to the Minnesota Safety Council) either see it as an infringement of personal liberties, or as unnecessary in rural areas of the state.

They need to hear from Sen. Dave Senjem, Republican of Rochester, who said his mind on this issue was changed by a tragedy last year in rural Dodge County.

Rachel Harberts and her daughter, 8-year-old Emerson, were killed when their car was hit by a driver in a Hummer who was texting while driving.

“My epiphany moment on all this came as I stood in front of the two open caskets at a funeral home in Rochester,” Senjem said before the Senate vote last month.

Senjem said it’s possible he could be caught talking on his phone while driving. “I may be picked up,” he said. “That’s OK. I’ll pay my fine. But we have to educate Minnesotans that this is wrong.”

Frankly, we have to think in terms beyond just offending and paying a fine, which in the case of these two bills is minimal.

Senjem is correct that there needs to be an effort to educate Minnesotans that using a hand-held device while trying to operate a motor vehicle is dangerous and can have tragic consequences.

States that have enacted hands-free cell phone bills have generally seen a decrease in traffic fatalities. Georgia, the most recent state to pass hands-free saw a 7 percent decrease in fatalities in the first six months. Twelve states that have enacted similar laws saw traffic fatalities decrease an average of 16 percent within the first two years.

Those are significant numbers. Even the saving of one life — or two lives in the case of Rachel and Emerson Harberts — overrides any concerns about the loss of personal freedom.

For that reason alone, conferees should waste no time in ironing out the differences in the House and Senate bills, and bring a no-hands cell phone bill to the governor’s desk for his signature.