Motorists across Minnesota can’t seem to put down their smartphones despite a new law requiring the use of hands-free technology.
Authorities ticketed 2,729 motorists in September for violating the state’s hands-free law, which kicked in Aug. 1. That is nearly an 18% jump in citations from the month before, when 2,317 tickets were issued, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
State Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank attributes the increase to an impulse that motorists find tough to resist, despite an onslaught of marketing and promotion leading up to the new hands-free law.
“Unfortunately, some drivers have become comfortable and are slipping back into old habits when it comes to using the phone while behind the wheel,” Shank said.
Minnesota has joined a growing number of states banning motorists from using smartphones without hands-free technology. Now, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted hands-free measures as a way to reduce distracted driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
One of those violators was a man driving a 40-ton tanker truck to haul hazardous materials along a heavily traveled road in Eagan while distracted by his cellphone for at least a quarter-mile. He was ticketed before his “downright scary” actions caused serious harm, said the police officer who pulled him over.
Eagan traffic unit officer Luke Nelson has noted a rise in distracted driving since the hands-free law took effect amid an aggressive law enforcement public education campaign. When the law kicked in, Nelson recalled, he could tell motorists appeared to be getting the message.
“I remember they would see me and have their hands on their steering wheel and being so proud,” Nelson said. “They saw me seeing them with their hands on the steering wheel.”
But after a few months and less publicity about the hands-free law, “sure enough, that awareness seems to have worn off, and we are seeing a lot more violations.”
Nelson was on routine patrol along Cliff Road around midday Nov. 4 when a tanker rumbling the other way caught his eye.
The driver “never saw me, obviously, because he had his head down,” the officer said. “That’s when I make my U-turn.”
Just before pulling over the trucker, “I still could see the phone in the same hand. A quarter-mile this thing has gone on.”
Once the driver was stopped, Nelson approached, and the 58-year-old from Burnsville admitted to looking at his phone.
In Minnesota, a first offense will cost $130, with the fine jumping to more than $300 for subsequent violations.
In Edina, police there said drivers have been bucking the statewide trend. Its officers issued 129 distracted driving citations in August, but that has leveled off to about 50 a month since Sept. 1. But sheriff’s deputies in Anoka County have found themselves writing tickets at a far more rapid pace since the hands-free law took effect vs. the first seven months of 2019.
From January though July, the north metro’s county deputies issued 25 tickets for texting while driving, said Lt. Andy Knotz. But under the new law, which bans having a cellphone in hand for texting or any other reason, the county’s deputies have logged 27 tickets in less than 3½ months.
Knotz said it’s hard to say whether enforcing the more stringent hands-free phone use has fed the increase, but the numbers make it clear the new law “hasn’t been a real big deterrent. The bottom line is it’s still happening.”
Even among motorists who have newly installed mounts to facilitate hands-free phone usage, the State Patrol’s Shank said, troopers across the state caught “some of those drivers illegally manipulating the phone.”
Shank is also reminding motorists that some cellphone features are illegal to access even in hands-free mode. Among them: surfing the internet, streaming videos and using social media apps.
Also, teenagers cannot use their phones — even hands-free — when driving. The lieutenant cited two exceptions: for GPS or streaming music. Even then, those applications must be started before travel begins and must remain in hands-free mode the entire time, he said.
Shank pledged that the patrol “will continue to enforce the hands-free law and educate drivers on the dangers of distracted driving.”
He pointed out that a visit to HandsFreeMN.org would be a wise place to start. Just not while driving.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482