It’s been a long time coming, but Minnesota lawmakers have at last taken a common-sense step to improve public safety on state roads. On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill requiring hands-free use of electronic devices while driving.

Beginning Aug. 1, Minnesota law will wisely prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones and other devices to cut down on distracted driving. The legislation allows use of voice-activated commands in a “hands-free mode” for calls and other functions. The legislation also marks welcome bipartisan action for a Legislature in which the DFL House and GOP Senate are at odds over numerous issues as they continue work on a biennial budget.

Under the new law, motorists who violate the statute could receive a ticket that would cost $50 for a first offense. A second or subsequent violation would jump to a $275 fine. A guide on the new law can be found at http://bit.ly/HandsFreeGuide.

Minnesota will join 16 other states with similar laws. From their experiences, it’s clear that the hands-free restriction is needed. Most of the states that have adopted hands-free laws have had fewer traffic fatalities within two years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Without question, this law will help keep more Minnesotans safe. State Department of Public Safety (DPS) crash figures show that cellphones or electronic devices contributed to one in five serious injuries or deaths caused by distracted driving in 2016 and 2017. And according to preliminary DPS data released in April, 27 people were killed and 178 were seriously injured in distracted-driving incidents in 2018. Meanwhile, texting-while-driving citations have skyrocketed since 2013, rising from 2,177 to 9,545.

The final bill removed a House provision requiring the collection of demographic data from those stopped for holding devices while driving. It also excluded a Senate provision that would have allowed the use of phones tucked under hijabs or other forms of headwear, though the final bill did not explicitly prohibit phone use under those circumstances.

In previous legislative sessions, hands-free legislation faced opposition based on concerns that the law would violate individual freedoms.

However, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, said: “This isn’t about restricting liberties; it’s a matter of public safety. This is bipartisan legislation that comes out of months of work between the House, Senate and stakeholders, with the goal of getting drivers to use their phones in a hands-free manner — or put it down.”

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, who has worked on similar plans for the past decade, reiterated his support and acknowledged Newman’s welcome help in bringing the new law across the finish line. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, was chief author of the House bill.

Lawmakers passed the legislation after hearing emotional testimony from families whose loved ones had been killed in distracted-driving crashes. A number of those families, holding large photos of those they lost, stood with Walz as he signed the bill.

Among them was Vijay Dixit, whose daughter, Shreya Dixit, 19, was killed in a 2007 crash involving a distracted driver. He called the new law a good preliminary step and said he will continue to fight for even stronger rules against distracted driving.

“The best satisfaction is to get our children back,” he said. “That will never happen. … It is the future that we are pleased about — that hope that this [new law] will put, if not an end, a good amount of pressure on individuals to stay on the road fully undistracted.”