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Packed tightly together and holding portraits of loved ones lost to distracted drivers, more than two dozen people watched Friday as Gov. Tim Walz signed a new law limiting drivers to using hands-free cellphone technology on Minnesota roads.

“I just feel the deepest apologies that it took this long for many of you,” Walz told the families behind him before signing the bill.

The law is the state’s most expansive measure yet to curb distracted driving since families began lobbying at the Capitol for new restrictions as far back as 2001. Lawmakers also are looking at more severe penalties for texting while driving.

As of Aug. 1, Minnesota will join 16 states and the District of Columbia in limiting drivers to using phone devices with voice commands or single touch activation. The law provides exceptions for emergencies. GPS navigation is also allowed under the law.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials on Friday credited the citizens who have been pressing for changes over the past two decades of growing cellphone use in automobiles.

“You changed my mind,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who went from opposing the measure four years ago to becoming its chief Senate sponsor this session.

To prepare drivers for the change, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) is planning a public education campaign using about $700,000 in federal dollars to create billboards and reach out to schools.

“Today is the day that people can start with this law and make our roads safer,” said Col. Matt Langer, chief of the State Patrol.

Most states that adopted hands-free laws saw traffic fatalities drop by an average 15%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But Langer added that the DPS will underscore that “hands-free is not distraction-free.”

“We still want people to pay attention to driving and to follow the laws and use common sense,” Langer said.

A network of families who lost relatives to distracted drivers also is vowing to continue public education efforts. Vijay Dixit, whose daughter, Shreya, was killed in 2007, is beginning to reach out to elementary-age children. Another safety advocate, Karen Ilg, continues to hand out pieces of the wreckage from her husband’s fatal bike collision. And in the more than three years since their grandfather, Joseph Tikalsky, was killed as he walked across a country road to grab his morning newspaper, Sylvie and Jarek Tikalsky have spoken about their family’s experience to classrooms of their fellow teenagers.

The Tikalskys, like many other families, were a constant presence at the Capitol in recent years to rally support for the new hands-free law. Taking part in a somber signing event at the Capitol, they gripped images of a smiling Joseph Tikalsky.

“A few years ago, all of us were given a choice when this happened: How do you respond?” said Greg Tikalsky, of his father’s death. “The fact that we’re doing this makes us feel as though Dad didn’t die in vain. However you can take a positive out of this, we’re taking it out of it and trying to make the roads better for everybody.”

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor