For drivers with a habit of talking on cellphones, Thursday is the day to put the devices down.
The state’s new hands-free law takes effect, forbidding drivers from holding phones and other electronic devices while behind the wheel — and police will be watching for distracted drivers.
“If you are violating the law, you should expect to be pulled over by law enforcement,” said Col. Matt Langer, head of the Minnesota State Patrol. “We will be busy educating and enforcing.”
Plenty of Minnesotans will need to change their behavior quickly.
Minnesota drivers spend about 15% of every trip on the phone talking, swiping and texting, according to TrueMotion, a Massachusetts-based company that monitors mobile-phone use for insurance companies. The company also found that laws forbidding drivers from holding phones in other states led to fewer fatalities and crashes and dramatically reduced the amount of time drivers’ eyes and minds were off the road.
Mike Hanson, director of the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety, hopes the law will have the same impact in Minnesota. He called Thursday a “monumental day for roadway safety.”
From 2014 to 2018, more than 60,000 crashes resulted from distracted driving, accounting for one of every five wrecks in Minnesota. On average, distracted driving leads to 45 deaths and 204 life-changing injuries a year, according to DPS.
Under the new law, Hanson said, “Lives will be saved, families kept whole and preventable tragedies will not happen.”
Minnesota joins 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning the practice of drivers holding phones. It was already illegal for drivers in Minnesota to text, read or compose e-mail or access the internet when behind the wheel.
Hands-free laws are easier to enforce than those prohibiting texting because law enforcement doesn’t need to prove what a driver was doing with the phone, said Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety offices nationwide.
“Texting laws are always hard to enforce because a person could argue that they were doing something else with their phone that’s legal but is still distracting,” she said. “Operating a phone with your hand is easy to prove and see.”
Some Minnesota police departments plan to vigorously enforce the hands-free law on Day 1.
Police in Alexandria, Minn., warned drivers not to expect a free pass. Police departments in Hopkins and St. Paul are planning to have extra enforcement to target distracted drivers. Woodbury and Eagan won’t deploy additional officers but are ready to enforce the law.
“We will make stops with people who have phones in their hands,” said Officer Aaron Machtemes of the Eagan Police Department. “We definitely will give a citation if we see violations.”
Under the new law, drivers can touch the phone once to make a call, send voice-activated text messages or listen to podcasts. But multiple touches, such as dialing a phone number or punching in GPS coordinates, are now outlawed. Video streaming, gaming and using apps for anything other than navigation are against the law.
A ticket for breaking the law comes with a $50 fine for the first infraction and a $275 fine for subsequent violations. Court costs may also be tacked on.
Hands-free laws multiply
Minnesota isn’t the only state to crack down recently on cellphones and distracted driving.
As of July 1, drivers caught holding their phones in Illinois are charged with a moving violation. Three tickets can lead to a suspended license, said Illinois State Police spokeswoman Jacqueline Cepeda. Last year, Illinois State Police issued 15,150 distracted-driving citations. So far this year, they have written 7,796.
“We will continue to educate the public and enforce the law in order to gain the public’s full cooperation and compliance,” she said.
Only a handful of states banned drivers from holding cellphones until a few years ago.
Laws like those in Illinois and Minnesota are becoming more common because victim advocates have been chipping away at the issue of distracted driving, Macek said, adding that a growing number of people are realizing the danger the combination of phones and driving presents.
In recent years, Oregon, Georgia, Rhode Island and Tennessee enacted hands-free laws. In Arizona, drivers will get warnings until 2021 when police will start issuing tickets. Starting in October, it will be illegal in Florida to hold a phone while passing through a work or school zone.
Gov. Tim Walz, who signed Minnesota’s law into effect, said the law is not meant to be “Big Brother,” but to get people to their destination safely.
“We look forward to Minnesotans getting used to it,” he said.