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Minnesota Opinion: State lawmakers sentence Minnesotans to death

The heartlessness is a bit hard to fathom. Legislative leaders in St. Paul this session listened to tragic tales from fellow Minnesotans, had a bill before them to prevent more tragedy, and then did nothing.

By preventing a vote on the House floor, lawmakers essentially sentenced to death 53 Minnesotans this coming year. That's the number of fatal crashes annually reportedly preventable with a state ban on the use of handheld cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. In 15 states that already have hands-free laws, fatal crashes related to the use of electronics behind the wheel dropped 16 percent within two years, according to the Minnesota Safety Council.

No wonder Georgia jumped at the chance to become the 16th state with such a law just this month. And no wonder Minnesota's measure enjoyed broad bipartisan support for much of this legislative session; its 40 authors included DFLers and Republicans alike.

But then, inexplicably, the measure just died — for a fourth straight session, its sponsors and supporters reported this week. Frustratingly, the bill had life only days ago. Its passage through committee this year was a first, clearing the way for a floor vote in the House that never came.

"I'm astounded," chief House author Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, said, according to the Star Tribune.

He was far from alone. A recent poll by the Minneapolis newspaper found an overwhelming nearly 80 percent of Minnesotans in support of banning handheld cell phones while driving. It's certainly annoying: that guy crawling along at 40 mph on the freeway, his phone pressed to his ear or that woman at the stop sign, so engrossed in her conversation she doesn't realize it'll never turn green. For too many Minnesotans, though, like Tom Goeltz, the issue is more tragic and serious. Goeltz's pregnant 22-year-old daughter was killed by a distracted driver in February 2016.

Yet "(lawmakers) say, 'Let's put it off for another year.' They are playing Russian roulette," Goeltz said in Monday's Star Tribune.

They're playing and losing. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, distracted driving accounts for one out of every four motor vehicle deaths. Nationally, every year, approximately 421,000 people are hurt in crashes involving distracted drivers, 330,000 of those the result of texting and driving, according to AAA and other sources. Every day, 11 teenagers die from texting and driving; 21 percent of teen drivers in fatal accidents were on their cell phones.

A traffic-safety program in Minnesota called Toward Zero Deaths disturbingly determined that 94 percent of teens know the dangers of texting and driving — but 35 percent do it anyway.

In Minnesota, about 330 fatal accidents a year involve handheld phones and other devices. If we reduced that by the same 16 percent as other states with hands-free laws, that'd be 53 fewer fatals. Every year.

But not this coming year. Not with lawmakers in St. Paul, through heartless inaction, turning their backs on safety — and on 53 fellow Minnesotans whose death sentences they could have canceled.

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