A 14-year-old strives to make roads safer with legislation doubling fines for traffic offenses that involve cell phones
While most parents worry about their children's cell phone bill, Southwest resident Karen Harder says that she's proud of her son Donny's cell phone bill - his legislative bill, that is.
Donny is a 14-year-old who's bringing his concern about the danger of talking on cell phones while driving to the State Legislature. Bloomington's Rep. Dan Larson and Sen. Scott Dibble, of Minneapolis are co-authors of the bill.
Donny's bill would double fines for traffic offenses incurred while chatting on cell phones. It would mean that police and other legal representatives could access cell phone records to substantiate fines, while exceptions would be made for emergency phone calls.
Although he doesn't plan to get his driving learners' permit until the fall, the teen said he's thinking ahead. “I don't want to be in an accident with a driver on a cell phone,” he said. “I'll be learning how to drive very soon and wanted to do something about this to make the roads safer before I start driving.”
The problem first worried Donny when a driver who was deep in conversation via cell phone nearly hit the car he was a passenger in. The incident scared him so much that he wanted to find a way to make drivers more conscientious. After he attended a legislative committee meeting with his mom, he was inspired to change the law.
Now, Donny is lobbying other lawmakers to sign on to the bill that passed from the Crime Prevention and Safety Committee to the Senate floor on March 21, where it awaits further action. He participated in a press conference to introduce the bill and has testified for it during committee hearings. Donny has also spent time talking with local legislators in the Capitol building's hallways.
Donny has received countless e-mails, letters and phone calls of support from the community. He said that most of his classmates and friends think the bill is a good idea. He's becoming known as the kid with the cell phone bill. But the usually quiet kid denied aspirations to be a legislator. He said he wants to be a lawyer.
The 8th grader at Lake Harriet Community School, 4912 Vincent Ave. S., earns straight A's and just got accepted into Southwest High School's prestigious International Baccalaureate program. He also competes in swimming, track, cross-country skiing and rowing, and sings in his church choir. In his spare time, he likes to go to movies and parties with friends.
Donny's bill represents a third attempt to legislate cell phone use while driving in Minnesota. An earlier cell phone ban failed, while another bill restricting cell phones for beginning drivers and those with provisional licenses passed last year. Other states have passed similar resolutions for young drivers.
Organizations supporting it include Minnesotans for Safe Driving, the Minnesota Truckers' Association, the Minnesota Ambulance Association and the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota.
Hand-held cell phones are banned behind the wheel in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia - which also has a “distracted driving law” meant to curtail other activities such as eating, reading or applying makeup from the driver's seat.
“I'm not for banning cell phones because I believe that everyone has a right to use cell phones. It's just that they shouldn't put people in danger for that right,” Donny said.
The negative impact of drivers using cell phones is growing as the number of cell phone users rises. In Minnesota alone, there are almost 14,000 drivers on a cell phone during any given hour of the day, according to information from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Studies cited by the department show that cell phone conversations hinder drivers' ability to maneuver lanes, control speed, maintain following distance or their reaction time, or to judge traffic. Statistics collected by the Department of Public Safety show that cell phones were involved in one fatal crash and 137 collisions involving damages in 2002.
Furthermore, a study from the Minnesota Department of Transportation discovered that some drivers were actually hampered more by cell phone use than by intoxication (at the legal limit).
Some drivers say the detriment of cell phones is obvious. Aaron Worrell, a local property manager who travels up to 1,000 miles on the road weekly said he notices a lot of drivers on cell phones who're also driving poorly.
“As someone who spends a lot of time in the car, I'm for it [the bill]. I make it a point to pull over whenever I'm on the phone. Or I say, I'm driving. I'll have to call you back.” He added, “If talking on a cell phone does result in an accident, it should be fined. It raises awareness.”
Some states have even approved legislation preventing limits on cell phone use for drivers. Stephen Simon, a clinical professor of law at the University of Minnesota, likened Donny's bill to doubled fines that drivers get when they break road rules in a work zone.
“The Legislature has the power to do this. The challenge is due process. As long as there's some rational connection between behaviors that results in an increased fine. There's tons of research out there that show cell phones increase the likelihood of an accident. This is one step short of making it a crime,” Simon said.
Against cell phone legislation
Most of the opposition to Donny's cell phone bill has come from representatives of cell phone companies. They've argued that cell phones are useful in the car.
For example, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association cite that more than 200,000 emergency calls are placed on wireless phones daily in the U.S. Opponents also assert that drivers have a right to be on their cell phones and that cell phones are no more distracting than other activities on the road.
Cell phone companies have lobbied for the broader distracted driving law and against Donny's bill. The proposal for a distracted driving law to be added as an amendment to the state constitution failed during a committee hearing on March 21.
In his speech to legislators that same day, Donny said he hoped that cell phone companies would support his bill.
Larson, who serves on the state Transportation Committee, said Donny's solution is groundbreaking, “Donny's idea is reasoned. It doesn't go to an extreme. This is a great start for us to have the conversation. I wouldn't be surprised if other states follow.
“I've never seen anything this sophisticated from a teen advocating for law change. This will be inspirational for other young people who want to make a difference,” he said.