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Navigating a vehicle while holding a cell phone — even on speaker with a single hand — is illegal.

Sounds straightforward, but Minnesotans failed to get the message in 2019, so the Legislature turned up the volume in the 2023 session. As first reported by MinnPost, 10 words in the giant transportation funding bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz closed what some saw as a loophole in the hands-free law passed four years ago.

The law now explicitly prohibits "holding a wireless communications device with one or both hands."

Hands-free means hands-free. That's been the law and the message, but some defense lawyers and drivers saw a potential loophole for legal challenges to citations, said Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council.

"There are people who believe that if they are holding their phone and talking on speaker it's hands-free," Aasen said.

Some were reading the law to mean that a driver could hold a cell phone unless it was being used to initiate, compose, send, retrieve or read an electronic message, engage in a call, watch a video or play games, Aasen said.

That meant that law enforcement and prosecutors would need to prove that a cited driver was performing one of those tasks with the phone. The new law, however, makes clear that merely holding a phone is a violation.

"The intent was: Don't have it in your hand," Aasen said. "We don't need to know what they're doing."

The clarifying language added this year is identical to what was in the original 2019 bill passed by the DFL-controlled House. The Senate was controlled by the GOP that session and that language wasn't in the compromise bill signed by Walz.

So the new law is "a retread in where we thought it should be in the beginning," Aasen said.

The new language takes effect Aug. 1 and doesn't alter any other provisions or penalties. First-time offenders face a $120 fine. Subsequent offenses cost $300 each along with potential court fees and insurance rate increases.

Drivers can touch a phone once to make a call, send a voice-activated text or listen to podcasts. Drivers can use an earbud in one ear, but not both.

Video streaming, gaming and using apps for anything other than navigation are against the law for drivers. Teenagers cannot use their phones, even in hands-free mode, while driving.

"Whenever you're part of traffic, even sitting at a red light, the law applies," said Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol. The patrol didn't propose the clarification, but supported it.

"Ideally, we wouldn't want anybody to do anything other than driving," Langer said. "But we embrace the reality that people are on their phones."

Enforcement of the hands-free law has been challenging. Langer said all distracted driving citations are up 9% this year over last, but the patrol was also starting to see more hands-free violations.

"It's a combination of education and enforcement with a healthy dose of common sense that gets us through this uptick because hands-free is hands-free," Langer said.

Law enforcement's been under strain much of the time the law has been in effect, faced with staffing shortages and scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

"Enforcement ebbs and flows a little bit," Langer said of the hands-free law. "There's been a lot going on in the past few years."

For Aasen's group, the hands-free provision was one of many he said will make the roads safer.

The Legislature and Walz also agreed to spend $12 million for high-risk rural roads. Three out of four road fatalities occur on those roads, Aasen said. The Twin Cities metro area has more crashes, but they're not as deadly.

There's also new funding for a traffic data analytics center in the Department of Public Safety that will aggregate data and make it easier to target hot spots for enforcement, Aasen said.

In addition to staying off the phone, Aasen said the biggest thing drivers can do to improve road safety is to lighten up on the accelerator. "If you slow down even a little, it gives you more time to back out of a situation," Aasen said.