Minnesota’s new law prohibiting drivers from holding cellphones while behind the wheel was just hours old when Sgt. Mike Glassberg of the Hopkins Police Department spotted his first offender.
A man in a Mercedes-Benz GL 450 was holding a phone to his ear as he drove east on Hwy. 7 near Hopkins Crossroad just after 7 a.m. Glassberg stopped him and wrote the driver a ticket.
“We have zero tolerance on this right now,” said Glassberg as he worked an overtime shift Thursday morning to enforce the hands-free law that took effect just after midnight. “The goal is to change behavior.”
The driver Glassberg stopped was not the first to be cited. The State Patrol issued its first ticket just after 2 a.m. in the west metro, said patrol spokesman Col. Matt Langer.
Minnesota on Thursday became the 19th state with a hands-free law. For months, authorities have spread the word about the law through news reports, social media and literature passed out at civic events. Gov. Tim Walz and his daughter, Hope, even made a video about it.
But not everybody got the message, or complied with it.
In Eagan, police ticketed a woman who was texting her friend about the new law and then put the phone up to her ear to make a call, said Officer Aaron Machtemes. In New Hope, a group of officers from a handful of northwest metro suburbs gave warnings to some drivers and tickets to others. The first driver Glassberg cited in Hopkins admitted that he knew about the law but still picked up the phone.
Glassberg stopped four other drivers, including one woman who said she was unaware of the law. Another woman said she could not resist making a call to her daughter, even though she knew holding the phone was illegal. A driver in New Hope didn’t know the law banned programming his GPS while at the wheel.
Tickets come with a fine of $50 for the first offense and $275 for each violation after, plus court costs that may get tacked on.
Hopkins police officer Rob Rebai said he noticed more drivers fighting the urge to use their phones by fidgeting with their fingers when stopped at traffic lights, as if they felt lost without their devices. Overall, police said they were pleased with how well drivers were adjusting to not having a phone in their hand.
“It seems more were getting it than not,” said Sgt. Dave Johnson with the New Hope police.
For drivers accustomed to using hand-held phones, stopping can be hard. It’s kind of like weaning yourself off alcohol, said cognitive psychologist David Strayer of the University of Utah, who has studied distracted driving and has become one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the topic.
“It is difficult. They get used to the behavior that is not safe,” Strayer said. “This law is about not engaging in an activity that is distracting. Driving a little drunk is not OK. Driving a little distracted is not OK.”
Law enforcement authorities, lawmakers and advocates who pushed for more than five years to get the law passed, gathered at the State Capitol on Thursday to mark enactment of the law, which they hope will make state roads safer.
“This is a historic and monumental day for Minnesota transportation safety,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the lead authors on the bill. “We celebrate today and go back to work on traffic safety tomorrow.”
Distracted driving was a factor in crashes that left 291 people dead on state roads from 2013 to 2018, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Greg Tikalsky’s father, Joe, was struck and killed by a distracted driver in 2015 near New Prague. He was among several people who had pushed for the law.
“Distracted driving has consequences,” Tikalsky said during a news conference Thursday as scores of others holding photos of loved ones killed in distracted driving crashes listened. “Be thankful you are not among us and hopeful that you will never be.”
Police say this won’t just be a one-day crackdown as the new law takes effect. Drivers who don’t go hands-free can expect to get a ticket.
“We continue to enforce the law, saving lives and reducing crashes caused by distracted driving,” Johnson said.