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Put down that phone: Hands-free cell phone bill poised to become law

A hands-free cell phone bill that would require drivers to use hands-free technology when making telephone calls is expected to be signed into law soon. (Photo illustration by Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)

Distracted driving behaviors such as texting, posting on Facebook, checking scores of the latest baseball game and Googling an address are all against state law under the "Use of Wireless Communications Device" statute, commonly referred to as the texting and driving law.

But soon, Minnesota motorists could add talking on a cell phone while holding it to the list of items that are against the law.

The hands-free cell phone bill, requiring drivers to use hands-free technology when making telephone calls, is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Tim Walz.

A conference committee unanimously approved the final wording of a hands-free cell phone bill Monday, April 8, after the Minnesota House and Senate passed different versions of the bill last month. That sends the legislation back to both chambers — the House approved the proposed new restrictions Tuesday. Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign it into law.

Distracted driving contributes to one in five crashes in Minnesota with an average of 45 deaths per year, said Crystal Hoepner with the Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition.

"I believe the hands-free cell phone bill that will most likely be signed into law is a great win for Minnesota," said Hoepner, who is also a health educator with Horizon Public Health. "Research consistently shows that activities requiring a driver to take his or her eyes off of the roadway, such as texting or dialing on a handheld phone, pose the greatest risk to getting into a crash due to distractions."

Although a hands-free law won't completely eliminate drivers from being distracted from using their phones, Hoepner hopes that it will change people's mindset that a phone call or social planning is not as important as someone's safety on the road.

"If the hands-free cell phone law saves one life, it is worth it," she said. "I would think most people would agree with that, especially if it's your own life or that of a loved one."

Should this bill become law, Alexandria Police Sgt. Tony Kuhnau feels it will aid enforcement efforts, since officers will be able to pull someone over for simply having a phone in their hand.

However, Kuhnau said that it's best to remove all distractions and for motorists to keep their eyes focused on the road.

When it comes to how many crashes are caused by distracted drivers, Kuhnau said the numbers are often lower than what they actually are. That is because drivers rarely admit to being on their phone or admit they were distracted.

Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen agrees with Kuhnau that from a law enforcement perspective, the hands-free law will allow deputies and officers to more easily pull people over. He said the law doesn't mean that people can't talk on their phones, it just means that they have to do it hands-free. The point of the law, Wolbersen said, is to draw attention to distracted and inattentive driving of all kinds.

"From our perspective, the preference is for motorists not to use their phones at all," Wolbersen said. "Your attention should be on the road and how you are driving."

Multitasking

Distracted drivers believe the myth they can multitask behind the wheel, said Bruce Gordon, director of communications with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety. He said those killed by distracted drivers — a college student, a pregnant mother, a cross country runner — tragically dispel that myth.

"The list of hopes, dreams and lives taken away by distraction goes on and on, and law enforcement statewide is working to stop it," he said.

Distracted driving-related crashes claim an average of 45 lives each year, causing a lifetime of grief and pain for the families left behind and an untold story of what could have been.

To increase awareness and change dangerous behaviors, more than 300 Minnesota law enforcement agencies are taking part in a three-week distracted driving enforcement campaign that began on Monday, April 8. The campaign, which runs through April 30, is coordinated by the state's office of traffic safety.

Continuing a six-year trend, texting citations climbed 30 percent from 2017 to 2018. Here's a look at the number of citations given out for texting and driving during the extra enforcement campaign during the last four years:

• 2018 — 1,576

• 2017 — 1,017

• 2016 — 972

• 2015 — 909

With Minnesota's "No Texting" law, it is illegal for drivers to read or send texts and emails and access the web while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic. This includes sitting at a stoplight or stop sign. Penalties for this violation can include $50 plus court fees for a first offense and $275 plus court fees for a second and/or subsequent offense.

If motorists injure or kill someone because of texting and driving, they can face a felony charge of criminal vehicular operation or homicide.

The new hands-free bill would increase the fine for a first-time texting-and-driving offense from $50 to $150. The fine for a second offense would be $300, while third and subsequent offenses would bump the penalty from a petty misdemeanor to a misdemeanor and carry a fine of $500 if violated within 10 years of the first two offenses.

Here are some tips shared by Gordon for driving distraction free:

• Cell phones — Put the phone down, turn it off and place it out of reach.

• Music and other controls — Pre-program radio stations and arrange music in an easy-to-access spot. Adjust mirrors and ventilation before traveling.

• Navigation — Map out the destination and enter the GPS route in advance.

• Eating and drinking — Avoid messy foods and secure drinks.

• Children — Teach children the importance of good behavior in a vehicle and model proper driving behavior.

• Passengers — Speak up to stop drivers from distracted driving behavior and offer to help with anything that takes the driver's attention off the road.

Readers share their thoughts

The Echo Press asked its Facebook readers what they thought of a hands-free bill, and if it would make a difference. Here's what some of them had to say:

Tamara Eiden: Be careful what you ask for, today its "hands free" tomorrow it will be hands at 10 and 2 at all times. It starts small people. This is the land of the free, right? Giving up small freedoms to government control is a slippery slope.

Monty Normand: Won't make a difference, sad but that's just my opinion

Stacy Dan Foss: In favor. But what about all the other electronic crap in cars that distract people?

Joel Dahlheimer: Probably the right thing to do. Too bad it has come to this, but this is why we have many driving laws, not enough responsibility, accountability, and common sense.

Karie Ann: Personally I am too uncoordinated to use my phone while driving. While I do connect my phone to my infotainment center, I still pull off the road to take or make a call. I have found that even using the hands-free, that I am not paying attention to my surroundings if on the phone.

Karen L. Kuhnau: Yes, my husband was in a collision with a distracted driver and it has changed his life forever. You cannot concentrate when you are on a phone. If it is so important, pull over and talk or wait until you are at your destination.

Matthew Westad: Like all laws it is only as good as the enforcement behind it.

Fred Bursch: In favor. Anytime I stop at an intersection I see three or four drivers with the phone to their ear. Can't be good to have that many distracted drivers.

Thomas Sullivan: Is the government going to buy me a hands-free device for every vehicle I own? Why are people like me getting punished because some people can't handle talking on the phone in their vehicle? It's a joke.

Patrick A. Beattie: While a good plan toward reducing the amount of time people spend on their phones in their cars, the bill I believe won't change anything. Texting and driving is already illegal, and yet so many people still do it. The hands-free bill will hopefully reduce distracted driving, but as most of us have seen, people are addicted to their phones.

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in more than 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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