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May 4, 2007

A story of my own: State Government

I reported a story about a new bill going through both the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill deals with doubling the fines of moving violations if a driver was using their cell phone at the time of the incident. I had some issues with this story originally; mainly I was playing telephone tag with Rep. Frank Hornstein. He was very congenial, and wanted to answer my questions, although we had trouble finding a time when he could answer them. Originally I was unsure of how to put the story together, and make it interesting for someone to read, and informative. I had so much trouble actually getting the story to flow correctly; I actually turned it in late because I was so unhappy with how I had written it.
Finally Rep. Frank Hornstein got back to me, and he was able to answer my questions, although much of what he said was a little too general for a good quote. He did give me something useable though, and the feel of it was a little bit more casual off the cuff rather than bureaucratic.
I also talked to a commuter student from Delano who I ran into in the parking lot, and started asking her questions while we were waiting for the bus- I too am a commuter student and know how some people on their cell phones can be. Her quote I think made the piece a little more human, and helped to illustrate what the bill is attempting to do: namely lower cell phone use while driving.
Reporting this sort of story was very new to me, and the biggest challenge was making sure that all the information that I had did not bog down the story. Integrating the information from the AAA study as well as the academic journal article that I read for the story was difficult, though clarifying it and making it concise to get the main points across made them work. Talking to people, lots of people, to understand the issue was really the key. Following up on documents and other mediums also helped to contribute a good deal to my story. The prominent figures in the radio show Car Talk really helped to demonstrate those who are in favor of cell phone regulation, and added a little bit of humor to what could have been a very dry piece.
I think that if I had a little more time I would have liked to contacted the people who actually ran the AAA study and to really get an idea of what the drawbacks for that study were. I also think it would have been benefical to actually go to a meeting where the representatives were talking about the bill, as the bill is still moving through the House and I might have been able to get a better grasp on whether the bill will actually pass or not.
Overall I really enjoyed reporting on this story… even though at times I was so stressed out about writing it that I wanted to pull my hair out.
So without further ado, my state government story:

Cell Phones and Driving: Could be History
By: Cierra Sather

Drivers using cell phones could face higher fines for moving violations in the future as a result of a hang up and drive bill proposed by Minnesota legislators.
The bill authored primarily by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, to be considered later this year in front of the House of Representatives, proposes that the fine for moving violations be doubled if the driver was using a cell phone at the time of the offense. A companion bill is being considered in the Senate.
Minnesota follows in a national trend toward regulating cell phone use in vehicles. The primary reason representatives cite for this type of legislation is safety from drivers distracted by cell phones.
Laws prohibiting and regulating the use of cell phones are experiencing a boom in popularity and activity that began in 2001 when the first cell phone bills were introduced and are increasing each year, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Minnesota passed legislation in 2005 prohibiting drivers under age 18 from using cell phones while driving. A year earlier, New York State passed a law forbidding hand-held cell phone use while driving, except in emergencies.
The proposed Minnesota bill, which was sent to the House’s Finance division on March 22, 2007, could be the first cell phone bill in Minnesota to begin to penalize cell phone use by any driver already flouting traffic laws.
The proposed Minnesota bill will not have police pulling people over for simply talking on their phone, although, if a person was speeding while on their phone the fine for the moving violation would double.
Proponents of such measures say the laws protect motorists against a serious threat. Some critics – including the popular Tom and Ray Magliozzi of National Public Radio’s Car Talk program – liken drivers who use cell phones to drunk drivers. The two are fervently against cell phone use while driving, and have bumper stickers available to the public to back up their position: “Drive now… Talk later!?
“A guy on his cell phone in a big black truck nearly ran me off the road,? said Delano resident Melissa Sandberg, 22. “If I wasn’t paying attention he might have killed me.?
Yet despite irritation with cell-phone-using drivers, studies suggest phones are not the leading culprits of driver distraction.
Drivers are likely to be distracted by objects, people or events outside the car, such as billboards, or roadside businesses. Those factors caused distraction 29 percent of the time, according to a study by Jane Stutts and the University of North Carolina for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
By contrast, cell phones accounted for only 1.5 percent of all measured distractions. Other distracting activities included eating or drinking, adjusting temperature or music controls, talking to other people, and reaching around the car for items.
The AAA Foundation’s study, which sampled only 70 volunteers, also reported that attentive drivers accounted for 48 percent of all crashes in the study, while distractions were involved in just 8 percent of the crashes.
This finding has some academics looking at what they call “a disconnect? between law and policy analysis.
“A total ban does not seem to be justified on economic grounds and the effectiveness of hands-free devices in reducing motor vehicle accidents is unclear,? according to Robert Hahn in the Administrative Law Review.
Rep. Hornstein is confident in the proposed bill, “We’re talking about a pretty big hit.?
The bill could bring a speeding ticket from $125 to $250, and might make the Magliozzi brother’s bumper sticker closer to reality.