Minnesotans aren’t easily separated from their cellphones.
During the first week of the new hands-free law, officers cited 678 drivers statewide for failing to put down their devices while behind the wheel.
Data released by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) on Wednesday broke down the number of scofflaws per county over a weeklong period from Aug. 1-7, showing that more than 40% — or 286 total citations — originated in Hennepin County.
“Obviously, one is too many,” said State Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank. “We hope to see that number decline as people realize that we’ll be out stopping people.”
Minnesota became the 19th state with a hands-free law when it took effect Aug. 1. For months, authorities have spread the word about the law through news reports, social media and literature passed out at civic events. Gov. Tim Walz and his daughter, Hope, even made a video about it.
But not everybody got the message, or complied with it.
Shank let one driver from out-of-state off with a warning because they were unfamiliar with the change. “I felt like my educating them … was more beneficial than just issuing a citation without them being aware of the law,” he said.
Several others admitted to knowing about the hands-free law but lamented that it was a “hard habit to break.”
In Minneapolis, one man was ticketed after officers caught him driving near 35th Street and Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis while streaming the CBS police drama “Blue Bloods” on Netflix.
“That person didn’t even pause it,” said police spokesman John Elder, adding that the man was defiant he wasn’t breaking the law.
“You’d have to be living under a rock or on another planet to not know that this law has taken effect,” Elder said.
Though each officer has discretion about whether to ticket a driver during a traffic stop, educational warnings about hands-free violations have turned to more punitive measures as the month wears on. Those hoping to deny their way out of a fine aren’t likely to succeed, Elder said, because squad car cameras often catch them in the act.
Under the new law, drivers can touch their phone once to make a call, send voice-activated text messages or listen to podcasts. But multiple touches, such as dialing a phone number or punching in GPS coordinates, are now outlawed. Video streaming, gaming and using apps for anything other than navigation are against the law.
Tickets come with a fine of $50 for the first offense and $275 for each violation after.
Distracted driving was a factor in crashes that killed 291 people on state roads from 2013 to 2018, the DPS said.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to make the roads safer. It’s not to issue citations,” Shank said. “We want people to go hands-free and stop these crashes from happening that are completely preventable.”
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report. Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648