‘Epiphany moment’ for senator leads to hands-free law
The tragic deaths of a Blooming Prairie school teacher and her daughter last fall proved to be enough for Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, to work feverishly to bring a new law banning most cellphone use while driving.
“That was my epiphany moment,” Senjem said of the Harberts crash near Claremont during the first week of school last September. “It did not have to happen. There is no question that this crash had an impact on the Legislature,” he said.
The work of Senjem and his fellow lawmakers paid off Friday morning when Governor Tim Walz signed a new law limiting drivers to using hands-free cellphone technology on Minnesota roadways beginning Aug. 1. Walz signed the bill with relatives of distracted driving victims surrounding him at the Capitol in St. Paul. Senjem was one of the co-authors of the bill in the Senate.
Rachel Harberts and her daughter, Emerson, were killed on U.S. Highway 14 in Dodge County by a motorist allegedly on his cellphone using a banking app at the time of the crash. Rachel’s son, Jaxon, was also seriously injured in the crash.
“The Harberts accident changed me,” Senjem admitted last week. “You can’t stand in front of those two caskets without knowing as a legislator you have some control over it. It had a demonstrable effect on me.”
While Senjem pointed out the Harberts tragedy destroyed two families, he hopes if any good can come out of it, it will be this particular hands-free law. “Car accidents happen,” Senjem said, “but these kinds of things can be avoided.”
Senjem said it’s time for Minnesota drivers to create a different culture on the roadways. “It will inconvenience each one of us, but we can learn to go hands-free,” he said, adding such a law is owed to the driving public.
“Cellphones have invaded our lives,” Senjem said. “We can’t be texting while driving. It’s not fair to the other drivers. We all realize we can do better in how we drive in terms of cellphones.”
As of Aug. 1, Minnesota will join 16 other states in limiting drivers to using phone devices with voice commands or single touch activation. The law provides exceptions for emergencies.
The law is the state’s most expansive measure yet to curb distracted driving since families began lobbying at the Capitol as far back as 2001.
Most states that adopted hands-free laws saw traffic fatalities drop by an average of 15%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was enough to earn the support of Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, whose district covers portions of Dodge and Steele counties.
“I looked at the data,” Bennett said. “I don’t just want to pass feel-good laws like we often do.”
Bennett looks at the hands-free law as having the same effect over time as enhanced drunk driving laws have had over the years. “This is going in that same direction,” she said. “This law is a good step in the right direction,” she added.
Opponents of hands-free argued that this legislation is a waste of law, according to Bennett. “We had to do something,” she said. “There were too many dying and getting injured.”
Bennett is excited about the law taking effect later this summer. “I do believe it will help,” she said. “It’s not too much to ask people to keep their hands off the phone and eyes on the road.”
Senjem knows hands-free is going to cause disruption for drivers. But he’s also confident of one very important fact.
“It will save lives,” he says.