While driving, Minnesotans should ensure that their hands remain on their wheels—and not on their phones. Holding a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle is now illegal in Minnesota, as the hands-free cellphone bill, signed by Gov. Tim Walz in April, took effect Aug. 1.

Since 2013, it has been illegal in Minnesota to send text messages or access the internet while driving, but phone calls were permitted, so long as the driver wasn’t distracted. Under the new law, drivers cannot hold a cellphone—or use one to type, scroll or view content—while operating a motor vehicle, including while stopped in traffic or at a light.

If caught, drivers face a petty misdemeanor, which carries a $50 fine. Add in court fees, and that fine could total $130. Subsequent violations carry a $275 fine, plus court fees.

With the new law now in effect, Minnesota has joined 17 states and Washington, D.C., in requiring drivers to have their phones in hands-free or voice-activated mode while operating a vehicle. Supporters of the law hope that Minnesota will see results similar to those in other states, where traffic fatalities have decreased by 15% on average since such laws took effect.


The dangers of distraction

Each year, nearly 20% of crashes throughout Minnesota are related to distracted driving. From 2014 to 2018, more than 60,000 accidents were caused by drivers who were looking at their phones at the time of the crash. Likewise, distracted driving results in an average of 45 deaths and approximately 200 life-changing injuries per year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

That’s a set of statistics that Tom Goeltz, of Hudson, knows all too well. A safety and risk management consultant, he spends a significant part of his workweeks educating audiences about the dangers of driving while distracted, but the issue is also personal to him. In February 2016, his daughter Megan was killed in a crash caused by a distracted driver.

“It was a classic distracted driving case. There was kind of a bend in the road, and (the driver) never took the turn. He kept going straight and rolled into a ditch,” Goeltz said. “He rolled through the ditch for about 75 feet, and came up on a crossroad, where Megan was waiting at a stoplight, waiting to turn onto the highway …. He never even slowed down; he was traveling 54 miles per hour when he hit her.”

Megan was brought to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where she was pronounced dead. Then 22, she was pregnant with her second child when she died. “Right now, I should be holding a two-and-a-half-year-old grandson,” Goeltz said.

Megan’s daughter, Paisley, was three when her mother died. “She probably won’t even remember her mother, other than what we talk about and show her to try to keep (Megan’s) memory alive,” Goeltz said.

Due to his job, Goeltz has been a long-time advocate for distraction-free driving, but Megan’s sudden death motivated him to become even more active. He has been a vocal supporter of the hands-free cellphone bill.

“I’m proud and happy that this is now law, but hands-free isn’t risk-free. When I present, I tell people not to use their phone at all—turn it off; put it into airplane mode,” he said. “Even hands-free doesn’t help with the cognitive distraction, and that’s the really bad part of the distraction.”

However, Goeltz nevertheless sees the hands-free law as an important and much-needed addition to Minnesota’s traffic laws.

“At the end of the day, if we save 15% of Minnesota drivers and people driving through Minnesota, that’s great,” he said. “But I’d like to save everybody. I want zero tolerance (for distracted driving) because one life lost is too many …. I do this out of love and respect for Megan and her son. They can’t speak anymore, but they can speak through me.”


How to go hands-free

Lisa Kons, Traffic Safety Programs Manager at the Minnesota Safety Council, emphasized that hands-free means completely hands-free: holding a cellphone at all while operating a motor vehicle unless in the case of an emergency, is against the law.

“That means no typing, no swiping, no scrolling, and the biggie is that you cannot use a cellphone, or any other communicative device, while you’re a part of traffic and in motion,” she said. “If you’re pulled over and safely out of the way of traffic, that’s one thing, but if you’re driving or at a light, no holding your phone, no looking down at it.”

Kons said that modern-day gadgets and smartphone technology can make the hands-free transition smoother for drivers. She recommended that drivers use Bluetooth to sync their phones with their cars’ stereo system. For older vehicles without Bluetooth capabilities or AUX jacks, cassette adapters, which come with a cord that plugs into standard headphone jacks, function the same way.

Like Goeltz, Kons emphasized that hands-free and distraction-free are not synonymous, as the safest way to use a phone while driving is to simply not use it at all.

“If you must use your phone, be hands-free. But the real safe thing to do is not to use your phone at all,” Kons said. “The fact of the matter is we want your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and head in the game. Be aware of the task at hand, which is driving.”

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