ECM Editorial Board
The time has come when penalties for convicted distracted drivers in Minnesota should be more severe and comparable to motorists convicted of drunken driving. In Minnesota, distracted driving is defined as drivers engaged in any activity that might distract from the primary task of driving.
Legislators have made texting while driving illegal, but drivers, except for school bus drivers and teens learning to drive, are allowed to talk on cellphones.
This age of technology has produced these communication devices that are causing one out of every four accidents in Minnesota, including 56 deaths and 165 serious accidents annually. While the results of distracted and drunken driving, including deaths on the highways, are the same, the penalties are not.
The penalty for a first offense of texting while driving is up to a fine of $300. Compare that to a first drunken driving offense of up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 and a suspended drivers license of 90 days. An accident involving a distracted driver who kills someone could result in a charge of criminal vehicular operation or homicide. A conviction could also result in imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of no more than $20,000 or both.
Moreover, civil damages from a death caused by distracted driving could cost in the millions.
State legislators are becoming more aware of the need to increase penalties for distracted driving. Gov. Mark Dayton said he would support a change in making consequences tougher. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen say they are becoming more concerned about the seriousness of distracted driving.
The Senate and House have taken steps to amend the law on reckless driving. This change makes a driver who disregards and takes a risk that results in harm to another person or property would be guilty of reckless driving. A driver who consciously disregards substantial risk that the driving may result in great bodily harm or death is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. The penalty for a gross misdemeanor could be a year in jail, a $3,000 fine and two years of probation.
While it won’t happen this session, it is time to consider passing a law banning cell phone use while driving as 14 other states have done.
Critics of tougher penalties for distracted driving say that blaming accidents on distracted drivers is hard to prove, while drunken driving can be measured by blood-alcohol tests.
If a recent six-day statewide law enforcement saturation for distracted driving is a benchmark, the problem is growing. During a statewide saturation in April, more than 900 drivers were cited for distracted driving. That is nearly double the number of citations issued during a 14-day statewide saturation in 2014. Texting was just one area where drivers were found to be distracted.
Art Kosieradzki, an attorney from Lakeville who handles drunken and distracted driving cases, believes that making students and their families aware of the dangers of distracted driving is most important now. He recently gave nine presentations on the causes and consequences to groups of students at Lakeville North and Lakeville South high schools.
He tells students their lives can be changed in a few seconds by their selfish decision to drive while distracted, could cause serious injuries and even death. To keep them and others aware, he has started a website, yesiwill.us, where viewers can download a pledge on distracted driving.
There is time left in this Legislative session to toughen penalties for distracted driving. That alone will increase awareness.
United States Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has authored a bill to provide resources to generate more awareness, said it best: “No text is worth dying for.”