Sgt. Matt Steen with the Richfield Police Department said he sees way too many drivers holding cellphones even though it has been against the law in Minnesota for nearly five years.

"I had an argument with a man who said, 'I have to be on the phone for work,'" Steen said. "A lot of people don't understand the hands-free law."

In 2020, Richfield was one of the first departments in the state to deploy an unmarked pickup truck to give officers a higher vantage point to look into cars and spot motorists not paying attention while behind the wheel.

Another 13 law enforcement agencies have or soon will buy similar trucks, courtesy of $642,000 in grants awarded this month by the state's Office of Traffic Safety (OTS). The money was doled out as part of April's National Distracted Driving Awareness Month ending Tuesday.

"We still have a huge problem with distracted driving," said Mike Hanson, OTS director. "People are blatantly violating the hands-free law."

Minnesota law prohibits motorists from holding a phone or electronic device, reading or composing emails or text messages, streaming videos or accessing the internet while behind the wheel. Drivers can touch their 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 outlawed.

Yet it's still a common and dangerous practice, Steen said. Data from the Department of Public Safety shows distracted driving contributed to nearly 30,000 crashes from 2019 through 2023. The wrecks led to an average of 29 fatalities and 146 life-changing injuries annually during the same four-year period, the data said.

This month, nearly 300 agencies across the state have been carrying out an enforcement and educational campaign to stop drivers from interacting with their phones and engaging in other risky behaviors. As of Wednesday, Richfield police had issued 211 hands-free citations in April alone, and are on pace to surpass the total given out all of last year, Steen said.

"Distracted driving is not going down. It's going up," said Steen, who added many drivers try to conceal their activity by holding their phones in their lap.

That's where the Ford, Chevy and Ram pickups come in. Besides providing a better vantage point than from a squad car, the trucks are outfitted with cameras to record the illegal behavior and support an officer's observation.

"It's a little hard to say you were not doing something when it is on film," Hanson said.

Traffic enforcement took a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanson said, and "we're seeing the results." As of April 10, traffic fatalities were up 61% this year compared with the same time frame last year. Distracted driving, because it involves a visual, cognitive and physical component, has played a significant role in the spike, he said.

Grants were awarded to police departments in Blaine, Brooklyn Park, Eagan, Elk River, Grand Rapids, Orono and St. Paul, and to the Olmsted and Washington County sheriff's offices.

Steen hopes the trucks remind people to put down the phone and concentrate on driving.

"It's the most dangerous thing we do every day," he said.