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Transportation attention turns to policy issues

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Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

ST. PAUL -- Motorists would be prohibited from sending text messages while driving and Minnesota's school bus laws may be strengthened as lawmakers look for ways to make traveling the state's roads safer.

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Now that legislators put a $6.6 billion transportation spending plan into law, they have shifted their attention from highway funding to other transportation issues.

A bundle of transportation issues were left on the table at the end of the 2007 session. Lawmakers said they will make minor changes to that package and pass it this spring.

They also are developing a second bill that could include a handful of higher-profile provisions.

Measures aimed at improving road safety, such as new restrictions on young drivers and on seat belt use, are being considered. Traffic crashes and fatalities cost the state and other drivers millions, lawmakers said.

"Hopefully some of the things we do in the bill will help lower that overall cost," said Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

Lawmakers rushed this week to debate bills in committee before a deadline today. A House transportation committee drafted its bill Thursday, while the Senate planned to assemble its transportation policy bill today.

One proposal being considered bans motorists from using mobile phones to send or receive electronic messages, including e-mails and text messages, while driving. A few exceptions would be allowed.

"You can't be text-messaging while you're going down the road," said Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton, a top Republican on transportation. "I'll support that one."

Tougher restrictions, such as banning the use of mobile phones entirely while driving - proposed by Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth - have been discussed but do not appear to have enough support to pass.

The state's seat belt laws also could be tightened this year.

Murphy has pushed for years to make seat belt use a primary offense, meaning law enforcement officers could pull over drivers for failing to wear a seat belt. Now, they can be cited for not being buckled in, but only after they are stopped for another reason.

Murphy predicted that toughening the seat belt law would save 40 lives a year and prompt federal officials to send Minnesota $15 million more in transportation funds.

"We're going to capture that money and reinvest it in safety programs on our roads," said Murphy, who faced resistance from fellow rural legislators in earlier attempts to tighten the seat belt law.

Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, shook his head when asked about the primary seat belt provision. T

hat measure has repeatedly gained support in the Senate but failed in the House, and representatives have said it is so controversial it could sink an entire bill.

Nevertheless, Lieder, a top legislator on transportation, said lawmakers know where they stand on the issue and it should come up for a vote.

"It's about ready for a trial run," he said. "If it doesn't come now, it's going to come (sometime)."

Magnus warned it will face opposition.

He said Minnesota is not missing out on federal funding because most motorists already buckle up - another factor he said the federal government considers.

"So why take more freedom away from people?" Magnus asked. "I support letting people be free to do what they want."

School bus safety has gained attention at the Capitol, after high-profile bus crashes and an independent report released earlier this year pointed to student transportation shortcomings.

That report by the legislative auditor cited a lack of proper training for people who drive vans or other smaller vehicles for school-related activities.

Legislation this year could add training requirements for those drivers, as well as call for more state bus inspectors.

A plan to create a new state office of bus safety is less likely to pass this year because it could cost money in a time of deficits.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have worked on the bus safety legislation in recent weeks. Government has a responsibility to provide safe student transportation, Murphy said, and it has not been negligent.

Still, he added: "Certainly we can do better."

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