No law is so ignored and treated with such disdain as Minnesota’s hands-free cell phone law. People openly talk, text, and check social media on their phones while driving with little fear of being cited for violating the law.
In some rural counties, the number of citations given out in a year for distracted driving can be counted on one hand; you are not likely to need two. Yet, everyone driving a vehicle sees multiple instances of people obviously on their phones daily.
So few citations being issued could be related to people quickly putting down their phones when they see a squad car. Yet that doesn’t account for how few people are cited for violating the law and risking the lives of the people around them.
Some believe the cause of so few citations could be linked to the language of the 2019 hands-free state law that prohibits holding a mobile device in your hand while driving.
Under the state’s hands-free law, drivers can’t hold their phones and talk while operating a vehicle. They can only use voice commands or “single- touch activation without holding the phone to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts, and get directions,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) says. “Accessing or posting on social media, streaming videos, checking box scores, and Googling information on a device while driving are all still against the law in Minnesota, even in hands-free mode,” it adds.
Most newer vehicles have hands-free technology built in. However, a significant number of vehicles on the road do not have hands-free capability, leading drivers to hold their phones in their hands. They may be using the speaker mode on their phone, but they are violating the law with it in their hand.
Despite the seeming clarity of the law, there has been confusion for some in precisely what it says.
“Because some drivers and a few prosecutors and judges think the law isn’t clear about whether law enforcement officers need to prove that a driver was both holding a phone and using it,” Peter Callaghan, a staff writer with MinnPost reports, enforcement was spotty. Now, there is no room for doubt under language added to the 2019 law by the Minnesota Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Walz.
“When a motor vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic, the person operating the vehicle upon a street or highway is prohibited from holding a wireless communications device with one or both hands,” the new law says.
“Hands-free is hands-free,” Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matt Langer told Callaghan. The 2019 law always said that he contends “despite what some drivers and court administrators concluded.”
Callaghan also talked with Paul Aasen, the president of the Minnesota Safety Council. Aasen was behind the passage of the 2019 law. He told him that “district courts and court administrators have said prosecutors have to prove that the driver was engaging in other illegal acts under the law and holding the phone, such as taking part in a call.
“They interpreted it as ‘if we catch you holding your phone, you also have to prove you are doing one of those other things on the list as well,’” he told Callaghan. “To prove there was illegal texting or illegal phone calls would require an officer to take the phone or seek phone records, all for a petty misdemeanor, the lowest level of offense that carries a fine of less than $300.”
People hear these stories of challengers to the law. They figure that if the law is considered vague by some in law enforcement and on the bench, they aren’t likely to be stopped. They see the widespread disregard for enforcing of the law, and their conclusion seems justified. As a law gets ignored without consequences, the abuse increases.
“This puts abundant clarity around the fact that you can’t have it in your hand,” Langar said. Now the simple act of having a phone in your hand is grounds to be stopped and cited.
It takes only a second of distraction, of looking at your phone when your eyes should be on the road, to strike a child who runs into the street, to rear-end the vehicle ahead of you that slowed down quickly to avoid hitting a deer or to wander into the other lane and strike a car head-on. These aren’t cases that might happen – they are unnecessary tragic accidents that do happen.
While the first offense penalty is low, the consequences of distracted driving can be life changing.
If you kill someone while violating the law, you will face felony charge of criminal vehicular homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Your days in prison will be filled with regret for taking a life, the pain you caused a family, and the loss of your freedom.
While strengthening Minnesota’s hands-free law should lead to more arrests and fewer accidents, it doesn’t entirely solve the problem of distracted driving.
There is substantial proof that our mind misses important details about our surroundings when we multitask. People blow through stoplights, miss their exits, and don’t see traffic slowing down ahead of them when talking on a cell phone, even if it is hands-free.
“There remains debate as to whether hands-free calls are safer than calls made while holding a phone,” Callaghan writes. “It is the conversation more than the method that causes the distraction, studies have shown. But banning hand- held phones by drivers was hard enough, taking years of lobbying by traffic safety advocates and family members of people killed due to distracted driving.”