Beginning Thursday, Aug. 1, Minnesota drivers will no longer be able to hold their cellphones in their hands while operating a vehicle.
This new law aims to help law enforcement better cut down on distracted drivers, an issue that has seemingly worsened in the smartphone era.
“The inattentive driving - texting while driving and all of that - has been unlawful leading up to this new law change, but the difficult part of it was enforcement,” Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard said. “We couldn’t tell if a person had the phone in their hand because they were making a phone call or in the process of making a phone call. The great majority of the time, it was someone texting and driving, which is the biggest problem we are seeing.
“With this law, it kind of eliminates the argument of, ‘I was looking up a number,’ or whatever task they said they were doing.”
Area police chiefs support the new law.
“I think it’s a good law. Phones are distracting. There’s enough distractions as it is driving a car,” Nisswa Police Chief Craig Taylor said.
Pequot Lakes Police Chief Eric Klang said the law is long overdue.
“Distracted driving is becoming the growing trend for why accidents are happening on our roadways,” Klang said, noting distracted driving is among the five top reasons why crashes occur. “I don’t think anyone can go down the road without seeing someone with a phone in their face. With this law, we hope to change that.”
The chiefs admit compliance will take awhile. Klang estimated it could take four to five years to get complete compliance with the hands-free law. However, drivers should expect the law to be enforced as soon as it is in effect.
“There clearly is an issue with people being distracted, as far as I am concerned,” Breezy Point Police Chief Kevin Merschman said. “There will be tickets written. People have had plenty of warning about this law going into effect, so I don’t think anyone should expect a grace period.”
Regarding enforcement of the law, Taylor admitted that will be difficult, but said: “It will be enforceable and we will enforce it. It’s just going to be a situation where it’s going to be difficult to see sometimes, but we’ll detect it.”
Klang said area law enforcement will target people using phones while driving in Toward Zero Deaths enforcement campaigns. And for awhile, some area police likely will issue warnings over tickets until drivers get accustomed to the hands-free law.
“I’ve done it. We’ll have to get used to it too,” Taylor said of holding a cellphone while driving.
The key is public safety.
“We just want people to be safe. We don’t want to stick them with a big fine. It’s a habit to talk on the phone while driving. It’s going to take some time to get used to,” Taylor said, comparing it to the seat belt law. It took time for people to get used to putting on seat belts, and now they do it without thinking about it.
Klang said there has been a lot of publicity about the new hands-free law through social media and news coverage.
People know they can’t text and drive, he said. While law enforcement has been targeting that, it wasn’t always possible to prove the driver was texting. It’ll be easier now, because if drivers are looking at a phone in their hand, they’ll be in violation of law and can be ticketed for it.
He advised people to use a setting on cellphones that detects when the phone is in motion and automatically sends a response to a text saying the person can’t talk right now because they are driving.
“We’ve got to do something to get this to stop,” Klang said of distracted driving. “We’re hoping it’s going to drastically reduce the number of crashes out there.”
Taylor sees a lot of people talking on cellphones while driving.
“I ride bicycle every day, and when you ride a bicycle or a motorcycle you are very much more aware of the safety of other drivers because you’re at a big disadvantage,” he said, noting when bicycling he really notices drivers talking or texting. “That’s unnerving when you’re on a bicycle.”
He isn’t the only officer to see violations while off duty.
“Especially in my personal vehicle, I have seen people all over the road while they are messing on their phones,” Merschman said. “It’s worse than any drunk driver … Plenty of people who would never consider driving drunk just can’t seem to put the phone down.”
Law enforcement are seeing this as an important step toward making roads safer. One which is not actually that difficult.
“Just make a cognizant effort to make this work,” Goddard said. “This is the standard moving forward … Put your focus on driving. The phone call can wait. The text can wait. You are still allowed to pull over to text someone or check email. You just can’t do it while driving down the road, which you should not have been doing in the past.”
Driving without distraction is particularly important in the summer.
‘In the summer there’s so much traffic, you really need to pay attention. It takes 100 percent of your attention to maneuver around here,” Taylor said.
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch agrees the new hands free law will be easier to enforce than past laws on texting and accessing data.
“It's easier from our standpoint because if you see somebody holding the phone now, it's a violation of the law,” Burch said. “That would eliminate the question of whether they were talking or texting on it.”
County law enforcement have had difficulty in the past in enforcing texting laws. This new law will be twofold, simplifying county efforts to crack down on driving and texting as well.
“We didn't do a lot of texting citations,” Burch said. “Some of the citations we ended up doing were after the fact that a crash was caused. Most of our contact with operators are at highway speeds. We don't spend a lot of time in cities pulling up next to drivers at stoplights and sitting next to them to note someone is doing that. I think this definitely will make a difference for us.”
In some cases, safer, legal driving may mean preparing for the drive before you start.
“If you have a destination, set it when you are in the parking lot or driveway,” Goddard said. “Spend the money to get a device holder - either one for the cup holder or one that mounts on the dash - and listen to directions as you go.”
Goddard equated the new law to seat belt enforcement laws of the past. In his experience, roughly one of every five vehicles was compliant when enforcement began, and now an individual without a seat belt on is a rare occurrence.
“This is really going to be a lifestyle change for everyone … It will take some time. I’m sure we will have a lot of verbal and written warnings and citations as this progresses, but our goal right now to educate and let the people know you cannot do it,” he said.
State Patrol Public Information Officer Neil Dickenson wanted to make sure people know they can still use cellphones, so long as they can do so hands free.
“The new law allows a driver to use their cellphone to make calls, text, listen to podcasts and get directions only by voice commands or single touch activation,” Dickenson said.
Dickenson still recommends that people put their phones away and only use them while parked.
Just like other agencies, Dickenson said the law may greatly improve enforcement.
“With our current law about texting and driving, it was on the officer to prove the driver was on their cellphone texting or accessing videos or any live feed on that phone,” Dickenson said. “That could be tough to do. With the new law coming into effect, any time we see a phone in a driver's hand, it's pretty easy for an officer to make that traffic stop.”
Dickenson said texting and driving is still a big problem in Minnesota. It may even be growing. In 2013 there were 2,177 citations issued for texting while driving, while in 2018 there were 9,545. This new law will not only cut back on drivers distracted by phone calls, but also other forms of cellphone use. Similar laws have had measurable success in other states.
“Hopefully we'll see an increase in safety on the roadways and a decrease in traffic crashes here in Minnesota,” Dickenson said. “Fifteen states have already gone to a hands free law and 12 of the 15 have already seen up to a 15% reduction in fatalities in their state. We're hoping we'll see those same numbers, if not higher than those in other states.”
The financial incentive to follow the law is significant.
“We want everybody to start going one touch or voice activation now,” Dickenson said. “After Aug. 1 it will be an enforceable law. Your first violation is going to be $50 plus court fees anywhere from $70-$80, so well over $100 for the first fine. If someone's caught a second time, ... it's $275 plus court fees, so it's going to be well over $300. That's a pretty expensive moving violation.”
In addition, the new hands free, single activation law also applies to other electronic devices like GPS, smart watches and music players. As for drivers under age 18, they are still forbidden to use a phone in any way while driving with the only exception being GPS navigation.
Use of a single earbud for phone calls is permissible, as is supporting a device without hands, such as wedging a phone under a hat.