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Local legislators differ on cell phone bills

Legislators who represent parts of Douglas County agree that driving while using a cell phone is a problem. However, they differ on what kind of legislation is best for addressing it.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said she's a strong supporter of eliminating distracted driving but added that a bill, House File 50, is not the best approach and leaves several questions unclear. It would prohibit using a cell phone while driving, unless it is in the hands-free mode, but allows exceptions.

"Contrary to the name, this bill does not end distracted driving," Franson said in an email to the newspaper. "Instead, this bill permits texting, interacting with social media sites, etc. in a hands-free mode. Drivers should not be interacting with social media sites at all."

The House approved House File 50 by a vote of 107-19 Tuesday, April 9.

Franson did support another measure, House File 104, which she helped author. It prohibits drivers from using a wireless communications device to compose, read or send messages when the vehicle is moving. It would also increase the penalties for texting while driving.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, voted for hands-free cell phone bills after two amendments that he had concerns with were taken out of the final bill.

"Although not perfect, the bill will make drivers think more about distracted driving, and it will make our roads and highways safer," he said.

Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, who was not present for the April 9 vote on House File 50, said he supports legislation prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving.

In the Senate, Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, both voted against the Senate version of House File 50, which passed on a 56-10 vote March 25. The measure went to a conference committee, and another Senate vote was set to take place Thursday.

Westrom said the bill goes "too far" and leaves no room for drivers to determine when they can or can't use cell phones.

"With this bill, it didn't matter if someone is driving 5 miles an hour down a residential street, looking for their kid's friend's house, or in the metro area with heavy traffic, it would still be illegal," he said. "There's no room for responsible use of cell phones in this bill."

Westrom said the bill also doesn't make clear if drivers could pull over to use their phones to program their GPS. Some senators said they could while others said they could not.

"That kind of ambiguity doesn't do our drivers any good," he said.

Westrom said he heard from small businesses that were worried about the bill's impact. One owner told him that he uses his cell phone while driving to his next job to make sales and business calls. Pizza delivery drivers trying to verify an address with a customer would also be affected, he said.

A better approach to stop distracted driving, Westrom said, is increasing the penalties for it, treating it more like drunk driving, especially if their conduct results in property damage or injuries. He said a greater emphasis on distracted driving should also be included in driver education programs and manuals.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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