Law enforcement agencies pledged to vigorously enforce the state’s new hands-free cellphone law — and they have.
Police across the state wrote more than 9,700 tickets in the first five months the law was in effect. That prompted the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to spend $350,000 on a monthlong campaign that started Monday to remind drivers what they can and can’t do with their phone while behind the wheel.
“It’s a bittersweet number,” Mike Hanson, director of the DPS’ Office of Traffic Safety, said of the tickets issued. “It tells us that we have work to do as far as our education and outreach. The other side of the coin is that officers are paying attention and enforcing the new law effectively.”
The campaign called “Park the Phone” will be similar to efforts DPS took before the hands-free law went into effect on Aug. 1, with media outreach and billboards and city buses wrapped with reminders to drivers to go hands-free. There also will be a social media blitz on Facebook and Twitter, along with radio commercials to help spread the word.
Under state law, drivers are not allowed to have a cellphone or other electronic device in their hand while at the wheel. 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. Teenagers cannot use their phones — even hands-free — when driving.
Eagan police officer Luke Nelson, who works in the department’s Traffic Enforcement Unit, said many of the drivers he has stopped have said they were aware of the new law but were having a hard time breaking the habit of driving while holding their devices.
In one case in November, Nelson stopped a man who drove a 40-ton tanker truck with hazardous materials a quarter-mile down a busy road while texting on his phone.
“They say, ‘I had to take this,’ or ‘I had to check my e-mail,’ ” Nelson said. “At the outset in August, it was popular to have two hands on the wheel. Now it peters off and it’s not on the brain.”
Court records show that many of those cited — 4,259 drivers — were ticketed for dialing a phone number, talking or listening while holding a phone, or participating in a video call. An additional 3,033 drivers were cited for reading or composing an electronic message. Law enforcement cited 2,168 drivers for watching videos, playing games or using other software applications.
Tickets come with a fine of $50 for the first offense and $275 for each subsequent violation. Court costs can push the total higher.
State officials say distracted driving was a contributing factor in 60,000 crashes between 2014 and 2018, or one in every five wrecks. Distracted driving also contributed to an average of 45 deaths and 204 life-changing injuries per year during the same four-year period, DPS said.
While concerning, the high number of distracted driving citations may be attributed to increased enforcement, Hanson said. But over time, he expects citations to go down as compliance goes up, just like it has with the number of drivers wearing seat belts.
The “Park the Phone” campaign runs through Feb. 16. Additional campaigns will take place in April, which is National Distracted Driving Month, and in August to mark the anniversary of Minnesota’s hands-free law.
“You have a trunk or glove box,” Hanson said. “Put that phone away and don’t even give yourself an opportunity to be distracted by it.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768