From the president: Another blown opportunity to save lives in Minnesota

By Bob Lund
President and CEO

SFM is more than an insurance company; we’ve become a safety and service company. In part, this means that we’re committed to taking and recommending actions to reduce the risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

That’s one of the reasons why we have a company policy prohibiting employees from using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. It’s also why we’ve been an active supporter of proposed state laws banning the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) , fatalities in distraction-affected car crashes are increasing and totaled nearly 3,500 in 2015. While the NTSB attempts to collect accurate data, there is no reliable method to determine exactly how many accidents involve portable electronic devices. In reality, the scope of the problem is probably much larger. And this increase in accidents and fatalities is occurring at a time when cars and trucks have more safety features than ever before.

Accidents from distracted driving are increasing even in states like Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin that have outlawed texting while driving. In contrast, many of the 16 states that have banned the use of hand-held phones and other electronic devices have experienced a 10 - 20 percent reduction in fatal crashes related to the use of these devices.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety claims that distracted driving accounts for one out of every four fatal accidents — between 75 and 100 deaths — each year. According to a recent Minnesota Poll conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about 80 percent of those surveyed said using a cell phone while driving should be outlawed, and about the same percentage said the law should treat texting or checking Facebook while driving as severely as drunken driving. Even an informal poll conducted by Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) reflected about 80 percent support for banning hand-held cellphones.

Legislation that would have made Minnesota the 17th state to prohibit drivers from using hand-held phones and electronic devices did not pass in 2018 for the fourth straight year, notwithstanding the following:

  • Overwhelming citizen support;
  • Support from Gov. Mark Dayton and the vast majority of legislators from both parties;
  • Multiple well-attended rallies at the Capitol and around the state;
  • Lobbying support from a diverse group of respected organizations like the Minnesota Safety Council, Association of General Contractors, Minnesota Trucking Association, Insurance Federation of Minnesota, and Minnesota Police Chiefs Association;
  • Outspoken backing from large corporations like Cargill and Federated Mutual Insurance Company; and
  • Heart-rending letters and testimony at the Capitol and elsewhere from family members who have lost a loved one in an accident caused by a distracted driver.

In fact, the hands-free bill (H.F. 1180) never even got a vote on the House floor thanks to the shameful failure of legislative leaders who acceded to the demands of a handful of legislators who are too gutless to voice the reason(s) for their opposition to the bill in a public forum.

The Duluth News Tribune’s editorial board was incensed by the Legislature’s inaction on the hands-free bill, describing it as “heartless” and titling their 5/17/2018 editorial : “Lawmakers sentence Minnesotans to death.”

While I can appreciate that some Minnesotans don’t want to relinquish the “freedom” to use hand-held smartphones while driving, sometimes we have to place limits on our freedom and establish reasonable rules of the road for the greater good — like saving lives. Mandatory seatbelt use, limits on speed and alcohol consumption, and required insurance coverages are examples of such rules. I have no doubt that a ban on using hand-held devices while driving will become the law in Minnesota when our legislative leaders are convinced that political expediency aligns with doing the right thing.

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