A new law requiring drivers to use phones in a hands-free mode goes into effect Aug. 1, and in the coming weeks Minnesotans can expect to hear a lot about it.
Messages about the law — some witty and others somber — will be on billboards, splashed across social media and even handed out at local hospitals. The State Patrol has already done live Facebook chats to answer questions about the law and continues to stop by community events to explain it to drivers.
“Anybody who lives in Minnesota will have to work hard not to know about this,” said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. “Every Minnesotan should have some exposure to what is coming.”
The biggest repository of information is housed at handsfreemn.org, which went live the day after Gov. Tim Walz signed the hands-free bill into law in April. The DPS has posted information and answers to many of the most commonly asked questions about the law. The agency also has recorded video testimonials in which survivors and families that have lost loved ones in crashes involving distracted drivers share stories about how their lives were changed in an instant. The first video went up June 14.
In a testimonial posted Friday, Tom and Wendy Goeltz recall how their 22-year-old daughter, Megan, who was pregnant, was killed when a distracted driver went into a ditch, vaulted into the air and hit her car at a stop sign on Hwy. 95 north of Stillwater.
“Because of distracted driving, our family will never be the same,” Wendy Goeltz said during the taping in the family’s Hudson, Wis., living room. “When I got the call from the hospital, my heart dropped. The drive in was unbearable. An armed guard ushered us to a private room. A chaplain asked if we needed anything. You know things are not going to turn out well.”
Megan was a certified nursing assistant and the mother of a 3-year-old who now is growing up without a mother, Wendy Goeltz said.
The Goeltzes were among several families who testified at the Legislature to get Minnesota’s hands-free law passed. They agreed to do a video for the DPS because they want people to know that distracted driving has serious consequences.
“If you don’t think this is a problem, you are part of the problem. I texted all the time, but stopped cold turkey when Megan died,” said Thomas Goeltz, a safety consultant who now trains people on the dangers of distracted driving. “It’s extremely hard to quit. I understand what the population is fighting against.”
Minnesota’s publicity effort, with a $300,000 budget for advertising and outreach, is similar to one carried out in Georgia for a hands-free bill that went into effect last July 1.
Police and members of several state agencies there conducted interviews with the media, produced social media messages and expanded a website called Heads Up Georgia to include testimonials from people who have been harmed by drivers using cellphones. The videos have been extremely popular, said Robert Hydrick, communications director for the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
More than 142,000 visitors accessed the hands-free information on Heads Up Georgia in the month before that state’s law went into effect, with an average 40,000 page views a day in the week before the law took effect.
“It’s one of the best ways to get the message out,” Hydrick said. “People listen to those who have experienced it firsthand.”
The multipronged approach appears to have worked.
Two months after the law took effect, a study by AAA and the University of Georgia found 99% of motorists in the Peach State were familiar with the law, Hydrick said.
But that didn’t translate into instant compliance. The Georgia State Patrol issued more than 22,300 hands-free citations from July 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019. More tickets were written by local law enforcement agencies.
“This is a behavior change just like the seat belt law was 30 years ago,” Hydrick said, noting how difficult it can be to put the phone down. “It’s not just talking on the phone. You can water your lawn from your cellphone. They are so addictive.”
In recent weeks, Minnesota state troopers have appeared on Telemundo Radio to reach Spanish-speaking residents, and they have passed out materials in other languages. Fairview Health Services plans to give hands-free law information to its patients.
The DPS said it has reached more than 1.2 million Minnesotans through Facebook and another 51,000 who have visited handsfreemn.org.
Col. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol said his agency and partner organizations that include the Minnesota Safety Council, the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota “will leave no stone unturned” in efforts to reach all Minnesotans.
“We don’t want a single Minnesotan to be pulled over and be surprised by the hands-free law,” he said. “Our goal is compliance and prevention, but we will take enforcement action for those who choose to not do what the law says. We mean business.”