With a little more than a month before Minnesota’s new hands-free law goes into effect, officials are intensifying efforts to make sure people know what they can and can’t do behind the wheel.
Minnesota motorists will no longer be able to hold a cellphone while driving come Aug. 1. That means no dialing, texting, scrolling or even typing in an address while using a phone as a GPS. Drivers can complete phone calls, send voice-activated text messages, listen to podcasts and use a phone to get directions, provided it’s all done without touching the phone.
The intent of the law is to get drivers to give 100% of their attention to driving, Col. Matt Langer, head of the Minnesota State Patrol, said at a news conference Thursday.
Distracted driving “is a substantial problem on our roads,” said Mike Hanson, director of the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. “We use the word epidemic because it is that pervasive. We need every Minnesota driver to make good choices.”
Research by TrueMotion, a Massachusetts-based company that monitors mobile phone use for insurance companies, found that laws forbidding drivers from holding phones led to fewer fatalities and crashes and dramatically reduced the amount of time drivers’ eyes and minds were off the road.
In the past 18 months, Georgia, Rhode Island and Oregon have introduced hands-free laws and seen reductions in distracted driving of about 20%, according to TrueMotion’s research. TrueMotion analyzed 35.6 million trips nationwide between October 2017 and April 2018 and found that the average American driver spends 17% of every trip talking, swiping or texting. In Minnesota, drivers spent 15% of trips on the phone, according to the research.
Before Georgia’s law took effect in July 2018, TrueMotion estimated that drivers were texting and using apps for about 12 minutes for every hour on the road. The company tracked behaviors of more than 21,000 drivers for seven months — three months before and four months after the law began. After the law, drivers were on the phone for about three minutes less per hour on the road.
Minnesota officials are hoping their new hands-free law gets the same results. 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 the DPS.
In addition, texting citations have risen from 2,177 in 2013 to 9,545 last year, the DPS said.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, was the chief sponsor of Minnesota’s new hands-free bill. He wrote it after seeing the numbers of crashes and deaths rise and hearing from families that had lost loved ones in distracted driving crashes. The law, he said, targets phones because “no other activity is so universally abused.”
Distracted driving can include multiple behaviors, such as eating and grooming or holding pets while driving. Law enforcement officers can ticket drivers for not driving with due care if those activities interfere with safe operation of a vehicle, but it’s often harder for officersto discern.
“Using a phone in other than hands-free mode is easily identifiable, with no ambiguity,” Newman said.
The DPS has launched the website handsfreemn.org with answers to many questions about the law. In the coming weeks, the DPS and partner organizations, including the Minnesota Safety Council, the Minnesota Trucking Association and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, will spend $300,000 on outreach. Messages will be splashed across social media, and literature will be handed out at local hospitals. Billboards in Somali, Spanish and Hmong will be posted across the state, and law enforcement agencies will stop by community events to explain the law to drivers.
“This is not a small effort,” said Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council. “If we can get people to put down the phone and start to prevent injuries and crashes, that is a life change for the people who have been involved.”