In April of this year, Gov. Walz signed a bill that will add Minnesota to the ever-growing list of states that have adopted "hands-free" legislation in regards to cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle. This represents a significant change to our current laws and I wanted to take a chance to try and help educate the members of our community as this law is set to take effect on August 1, 2019.
The short answer to all of this, is that drivers in almost all instances will not be allowed to physically hold their cell phone or other device in their hands while operating a motor vehicle. There is an exemption if the party is calling to obtain emergency services for an immediate threat to life and/or safety. It will no longer be permissible to speak with your spouse or conduct business, for example, with your phone in your hand while driving a motor vehicle.
This new law does not mean that you cannot make or receive calls while driving. A driver can still engage in these activities, or use the device to play music for example, as long as they can control the device using their voice or a single touch. This means that you could push the play button to start a song, but it would not be permissible to scroll through the playlist looking for something different to play. GPS systems or other devices that are used for navigation are exempt from the hands-free law but drivers are encouraged to enter their destination prior to starting their trip.
Texting while driving has been outlawed for a number of years. This was an incredibly difficult law to enforce because of how the statute was written. The updated statute outlaws physically holding the device unless obtaining emergency assistance. Law enforcement no longer has to try and determine exactly what the motorist was doing with their phone while they were operating the vehicle as was the necessity under the previous statute.
The best practice, of course, is to put your cell phone in the glove compartment or another part of the vehicle where it will not be a distraction. When driving, your attention should always be on the roadway and to the other motorists or pedestrians around you. For those individuals that choose to use a cell phone while driving, there are a number of ways in which they can be paired with vehicles via Bluetooth technology and other means to allow for hands-free operation.
The penalty for violating this statute is $50 plus associated court fees for a first-time offender; this translates into a total fine of over $100. Subsequent offenses are $275 plus court fees. Clearly, this is something that the Legislature is taking seriously. I believe that roadway safety is everyone’s duty and encourage us all to work together to keep our focus on the road in an effort for a safer Minnesota.
Rick Wyffels is the Alexandria police chief. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.