If you're driving anywhere in Minnesota in the near future, be sure to put down your phone while driving.
That's the message law enforcement agencies in western Minnesota are sharing ahead of a new state law requiring motorists to put their phones into hands-free mode while driving.
The law is slated to take effect Aug. 1.
"We hope to inform people," said Felicia Znajda, an East Grand Forks police officer. "This isn't something we necessarily plan to pull people over for and just cite, cite, cite. It's more an educational thing."
Driving with a phone up to your ear could result in a $50 fine on first offense. That would jump to $275 for future violations. Znajda said it would be up to an officer's discretion whether to issue a citation.
She doesn't expect the law to require any additional staffing locally. The department already deploys a couple officers to watch for traffic violations, she noted.
"It would just be something additionally to look for," Znajda said.
Minnesota already has a ban on texting while driving, but the new law will prohibit having a phone in hand under any circumstances, except for emergency situations. That change will actually make the law "much easier for law enforcement to enforce," said Mike Hanson, director of Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety.
Though the new law won't officially take effect until August, Hanson urged Minnesotans to make arrangements immediately. That could involve simply changing behaviors or looking into available hands-free options.
"The time to do that is right now," Hanson said. "Figure out what your option is and make that part of your communication if you need to use that electronic device while you're driving."
Meanwhile, Mike Norland, chief deputy with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, said he doesn't think the law will require "any changes as far as how we do business."
He noted that the sheriff's office already performs "waves" to check for folks texting and driving. Norland said it was still too early to know if officers will perform additional waves to catch drivers with phones up to their ears.
Dick Wittenberg, chief of the Thief River Falls Police Department, said his staff will "have to adapt to changes in the new law," though he wasn't sure what those would look like quite yet.
"We'll have to wait and see on how we enforce it," he said.
Wittenberg said his department hasn't yet received any guidance from the state on enforcing the new law.
State Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, voted against the version of the bill that was signed into law. He felt Senate Bill 91 - the version of the law that passed - was overly broad and took away individuals' own judgment.
"Most people, if they're responsible, can be talking on their phone and still driving," said Johnson. In "our neck of the woods," folks can often take a quick call while driving away from their job site or farm without issue, he said.
Johnson supported an alternative version of the law -Senate Bill 75 - that would have allowed drivers to talk on the phone using their hands. But if motorists behaved in a negligent manner that results in injuries or deaths, there would be harsh consequences, Johnson said.
He also said the new law doesn't include as comprehensive an education piece as the version he supported. SB 75 would have required driver's ed programs to cover distracted driving.
"The other thing I didn't like about (the law) is it really didn't do a lot for education," Johnson said. "I think we need to have more education."
State Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, also voted against the hands-free device law.
"While I do not want anybody hurt by distracted driving, I have a hard time with government creeping into every part of our lives," she told the Herald. "We need to be responsible. We need to accept responsibility when we sit behind the driver's wheel. ... It is your job to be responsible. Now we're making government police what we're doing in our car."