DULUTH — On the two-year anniversary this week of Minnesota’s hands-free cellphone law, too many drivers, it seems, are slipping back into old, dangerous habits “and risking lives,” according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Statewide, on average, 31 people die and 192 are seriously injured every year because someone chooses to drive distracted, the department reported. Already this year, there have been 255 deaths on Minnesota roads. We’re outpacing 2019’s 364 traffic deaths, 34 of which were attributed to distracted driving.
“It’s safe to say the novelty (of Minnesota’s hands-free driving law) has worn off, and people could be getting complacent,” stated a Department of Public Safety blog post Monday, Aug. 2.
The law, just like it sounds, forbids holding a cellphone or other device in your hand while driving. It’s just too distracting. In a hands-free mode, motorists can still, under the law, use their cellphones to make calls, listen to music or podcasts, or get directions. But they can’t make video calls, watch livestreams, use Snapchat, play games, look at videos or photos stored on the phone, use apps, read or type texts, scroll, type, or make calls while holding the phone.
Prior to the law’s passage in 2019, Minnesota had already prohibited texting, using email, and browsing social media while driving.
In Minnesota, one out of every four motor vehicle deaths is due to distracted driving, the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety reported in 2019. In addition, every year, on average, 45 Minnesotans die and 204 others suffer life-changing injuries as a result of motorists driving while distracted.
Hands-free laws like Minnesota's have been proven to reduce traffic fatalities an average of 15% in states that already had such laws prior to Minnesota’s measure, the National Safety Council and Insurance Federation reported, basing its findings on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
Additionally, "This law (helps) law enforcement keep Minnesotans safe. Because drivers aren't allowed to have a phone in their hand, (it’s) easier for law enforcement to see violations and take more effective action," Toward Zero Deaths, a nonprofit to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, said at its site, minnesotatzd.org.
Despite the law and law enforcement's ability to enforce it, one in 10 Minnesotans are still using social media while behind the wheel, a new poll, just released in July, indicated. Almost one in five even admitted to taking a selfie while driving in our state. That 15% compares to 26% nationally; but really, it needs to be 0%.
Also, and perhaps most troubling of all, 18% of Minnesota motorists surveyed said they were unaware it’s illegal to use a cellphone while driving.
“This all adds up to a driver’s attention being severely distracted from what’s going on (around) them, and on the road ahead,” said the statement announcing the survey results.
“It’s deeply concerning if over (one) in (four) of the driving population aren’t aware of these rules of the road,” a spokesman for the Volkswagen dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that commissioned the survey of 3,100 drivers said in the statement. “It can have serious consequences. Being distracted by social media means you’re more likely to have an accident; (it’s) best to keep the updates to when you’re parked up.”
The penalty in Minnesota for not being hands-free while driving can be more than $120 for a first offense (including court fees) and as much as $300 or more for subsequent violations (including, again, court fees). If you get a citation, your insurance rates also could increase, the state Department of Public Safety points out.
Driving without a seat belt was also once a habit for most motorists that many predicted would never be broken. But 15,000 lives every year are saved now because we buckle up — because we changed our ways, as difficult as it may have been to do so at first.
In the interest of saving countless more Minnesota lives, we can get just as used to hands-free driving. It is the law, after all — has been for two years now.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.