When a new Hands-free Law goes into effect Aug. 1 this year, lawmakers are hoping Minnesota will join the ranks of the dozen states that have decreased traffic fatalities by an average of 15%.
"I believe it will keep motorists safe," said Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow, pointing to statistics that reveal just how bad distracted driving has become.
Distracted driving has contributed to nearly one in five crashes in Minnesota between 2014 and 2018. It contributes to roughly 45 deaths and 204 life-changing injuries per year in the state. And it's only getting worse. From 2017 to 2018, texting citations climbed 30 percent, hitting a new high of 9,545, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety website.
Grabow says he believes the new law will work, partly because it will make enforcing distracted driving more clear cut for officers, because it simply defines what a motorist can and can't do. If they have a phone in their hand, a motorist is breaking the law and will be subject to a $50 citation (plus court fees) for the first offense and $275 citation (plus court fees) for following offenses.
"It will no longer be necessary for any law enforcement officer to attempt to discern whether the phone was being used for texting or calling," said Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steve Todd, further explaining how the law eliminates some of the current gray areas around using a phone while driving.
Currently, officers can pull over anyone who appears to be texting and driving. They can even ask to see a driver's phone, but it's only illegal if the driver is reading, composing, or sending a text or email or accessing the internet.
The new hands-free law is much more restrictive and specific. Drivers may not hold a phone in their hand. They also are now not allowed to video call, live stream, Snapchat, game, watch or take video, view or take photos, or scroll through any apps or websites. The only exception allowed in the law is for emergency situations.
Of course, tighter restrictions means local law enforcement will need to adapt to the changes just like everyone else. Todd says Detroit Lakes police officers will work to implement the new law into their daily workloads as well.
"This is a challenge as our officers are experiencing another large increase in call loads. Year to date, they are up 13% from the same time period last year," said Todd.
Grabow says law enforcement is trying to get the word out about the new law, so people can prepare, rather than be caught off guard. He hopes educating people on how to comply with the new law prior to its rollout will ease the challenge officers will face enforcing it and civilians will face adapting to it.
"Do what you can to set up your vehicle to be hands-free," he suggested.
The Office of Traffic Safety Division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has a number of tips for drivers with all different vehicle accommodations to adjust to the new law:
• Don't use your phone when you drive. Put your phone in the glove compartment or trunk or backseat or turn on a do-not-disturb app and enjoy the drive. It's free, and you will be surprised at how many new sights you will see on your drive. A number of large, successful companies have adopted no-phone-use policies for their employees while driving on company time, and after getting used to it, employees report being happier and at least as productive as when they used their phones.
• Use a single earphone that has the microphone, and you are hands-free. Remember, using earphones in both ears at the same time is illegal in Minnesota.
• Pair your phone to your current car or truck. If your existing vehicle and phone can talk to each other, pair up and go hands-free.
• Buy an auxiliary cable and connect your phone's earphone jack to your car's AUX jack. You can operate your phone by voice or single touch and listen through your car's audio system. Auxiliary cables can be purchased for less than $5.
• If your car is older and doesn't have an AUX jack but has a cassette player, you can buy an adapter that fits into the cassette player and allows you to connect your phone through the earphone jack. The cassette adapters cost about $30.
• Buy a holder to clip your phone to the dash. You can use it in a voice-activated or single-touch mode. Clips can be simple and cheap or complicated. Make sure you get one that holds your phone securely. Prices range from less than $5 to $50.
• Buy a Bluetooth speaker or earphone to pair with your phone. There are many after-market choices for both, all of which let you go hands-free. Prices are generally in the $10 to $50 range.