Minnesota’s Texting While Driving Law Lacks Teeth, Consequence

I used to text while driving. Nothing extensive, but if someone texted a short question, I’d look away from the road momentarily to poke at my phone. I carried out longer conversations via text while driving back and forth to Sioux Falls — a stretch I could probably drive with my eyes closed by now.

I changed my ways in Portland, Ore., where texting or even talking on a cell phone while driving was illegal. My Ford Fusion has a built-in Bluetooth feature which allows me to carry on a conversation without ever touching my phone, but as far as texting goes, that’s something I had to learn to quit. I’m glad I did.

AT&T launched a series of public service announcements in March, plainly titled TXTing While Driving. I only recently started seeing them in Minnesota. It’s a smart play by AT&T from a public relations standpoint, but also a poignant message warning about what’s become a national epidemic, especially among teenagers:

(You can see the rest of the spots here.)

I’m not sure whether this is based on a true story or if the female voice is a paid actor, but the message is painfully familiar. After all, anyone who’s texted on the roads knows it’s the simple, little texts like “Where r u” that often take our attention from the road.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, driving distraction (which includes texting) accounts for about one-quarter of all auto accidents annually, making it the number one cause. I think most Minnesotans — including myself — would be surprised to learn texting while driving has been illegal in Minnesota for over two years. Want to know why you may not have noticed? It’s a petty misdemeanor, but a secondary offense. This means you must be pulled over for a more serious offense (speeding, for instance) and proven guilty of texting while driving. The fine tops out at $300.

That’s not good enough.

For all the two-lane highways in this state, the blizzards, the icy roads, the wildlife crossing, Minnesota lawmakers should make texting while driving a primary offense. The current law is purely symbolic. Well-intentioned, sure, but not enough to scare anyone from doing it. We need something with teeth. Under the current law, no one’s punished until the damage is done. Offenders will have the petty misdemeanor added on after they’ve crossed the median, after they’ve run a stop sign, after they’ve failed to yield, after they’ve caused a head-on collision, after they’ve harmed themselves or someone else.

This isn’t sexy issue like state budgets or tax cuts, but a serious one that affects drivers on a daily basis. Whomever comes out on top of the Minnesota gubernatorial election should make strengthening the texting while driving law a top priority.

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