Law enforcement officers from across Minnesota are conducting a distracted driving education and enforcement campaign that coincides with the first anniversary of the state's hands-free law.
More than 19,000 drivers have been cited under the law enacted Aug. 1, 2019, that prohibits drivers behind the wheel from holding a phone or any electronic device, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
More than 300 agencies are participating this week in the enforcement effort, which runs through Saturday.
"Driving is a cooperative event," said Mike Hanson, director of the state Office of Traffic Safety during a Monday news conference at the St. Croix rest area on Interstate 94 to announce the crackdown. "We need everybody to comply with the hands-free law. It is a serious life or death matter."
Under the law, drivers are not allowed to have cellphones or other electronic devices in their hands while at the wheel. They may touch their phones 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 forbidden.
Video streaming, gaming and using apps for anything other than navigation are against the law for drivers. Teenagers cannot use their phones, even in hands-free mode, when driving.
Distracted driving contributed to 3,279 injuries and 32 deaths in 2019, according to state officials. But the law may be helping make the roads safer: In the first 11 months after it went into effect, 6% of deadly crashes were attributed to distracted driving — a 4% drop from the same 11-month period the year before.
There are still too many motorists who haven't gotten the message or have slipped into old habits, said Lt. Gordon Shank of the Minnesota State Patrol.
Despite the notion that some drivers think traffic laws aren't being enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shank said that police, sheriff's deputies and troopers are stopping motorists for distracted driving and other traffic offenses.
Motorists cited for distracted driving face a $50 fine for the first offense and $275 for each subsequent violation. Court costs can push the total higher. Insurance rates could also go up, officials said.
Drivers in Minnesota between 21 and 40 accounted for 57% of hands-free citations. The most tickets — 2,730 — were written in September 2019, a month after the law went into effect. The fewest, 868, were written in April, the first full month after the pandemic outbreak.
This week's enforcement is part of a larger "Drive Smart" campaign that Public Safety rolled out last year to curb the practice. The campaign includes messages on billboards and social media, and radio and TV ads to remind drivers "not to interact with that electronic device while driving," Hanson said.