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Editorial: Time for lawmakers to crack down on phone use while driving

How annoying. The driver ahead slows down to 40 mph, then suddenly races ahead before lazily switching lanes with no warning two minutes later. When you pull alongside him at the stoplight, you look over even though you know what you'll see. Sure enough. The idiot is on his cellphone.

As maddening as such moments are, the greater truth is that they are dangerous. Deadly, in fact.

Just last week, truck driver Samuel Hicks, 28, of Independence, Wisconsin, was charged with criminal vehicular homicide in the death of 54-year-old Robert Bursick in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Hicks was going 63 mph and had been texting for eight seconds when his truck slammed into Bursick, who was waiting his turn at a stop sign, Washington County authorities said. They calculate that Hicks traveled 740 feet in the time he was looking at his phone rather than at the road.

The Minnesota State Patrol is using the tragedy to urge state lawmakers to make it illegal to use electronic devices while behind the wheel — texting as well as talking.

Ironically, Hick is a driving professional and his home state already has made it illegal to text and drive.

Every year, approximately 421,000 people are hurt in crashes involving distracted drivers. Of those, 330,000 are a result of texting and driving, according to AAA and other sources. In Minnesota, according to the state Department of Public Safety, distracted driving accounts for 1 in 4 motor vehicle deaths.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation points out there are three main types of driving distractions:

• Manual — taking your hands off the wheel

• Visual — taking your eyes off the road

• Cognitive — taking your mind off driving

Texting involves all three. Thus, Wisconsin state law forbids driving "any motor vehicle while composing or sending an electronic text message or an electronic mail message."

So why hasn't Minnesota followed Wisconsin's lead?

And why haven't both states made talking on the phone while driving illegal?

There's certainly growing local demand for such laws. Just last year a metropolitan area poll found that 80 percent of respondents supported making it illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving and said that the penalties for texting or checking social media while driving should be equal to or more severe than for drunken driving.

Minnesota lawmakers have failed four straight sessions to get a tougher cell phone law out of committee and to a floor vote. This year House File 1180 and Senate File 837 have bipartisan support with 40 sponsors, but are those bills strong enough? No. In their current form they would only prohibit the electronic devices from being held. Drivers could still talk on the phone. Drivers could still send text messages today by using verbal instructions ... and still look down — with potentially deadly results — at the screen.

Lawmakers, your delays like those drivers' inattention to the job at hand, have gotten annoying. Worse, people are being injured and killed.