Minnesota hands-free law begins Aug. 1

Drivers will no longer be able to legally use their hands to control a cell phone as of Aug. 1 in Minnesota.
Chad Smith

Because of the dangers posed by distracted driving, Minnesota joined 17 other states, plus Washington, D.C., in passing a hands-free law that goes into effect Aug. 1. But what exactly does “hands-free” mean?

“To break it down in the simplest terms, you cannot have a phone in your hand at all while driving,” says Fillmore County Sherriff John DeGeorge. “As of Aug. 1, you can’t even have a cell phone in your hand and hold it up to your ear to make a phone call. Of course, text messages aren’t going to be legal as well.”

DeGeorge stressed that it won’t be legal to pull out a cell phone even if drivers are stopped at a stoplight or sign.

“Technically, you’re still driving,” DeGeorge said. “As of Aug. 1, if you’re going to make a phone call in the car, drivers will need some sort of built-in device that will help you make that call. For example, a bluetooth-enabled audio system would be legal. Most newer cars these days have something like that built in.”

Many drivers use phones equipped with GPS systems that help them navigate in unfamiliar areas. DeGeorge says that use is still legitimate, but with conditions.

“If you’re going to a place like Target Field but haven’t been there before, it’s OK to punch in the directions before you put the vehicle in motion,” he said. “You can listen to the turn-by-turn directions while you’re driving, as long as you aren’t using it in any way with your hands while you’re driving.”

Rushford Police officer Kaylee Inglett said the key to being legal is not having a phone in your hand for any reason while you’re driving.

“We can definitely see other drivers who have their phones in hand and up to their ears just driving down the road,” she said. “It’s not too hard to spot someone talking on their phone while driving. Sometimes we see distracted driving just by how they’re moving down the road, too. It’s a lot of the same signs as impaired driving.”

DeGeorge said the average citizen may not realize it, but their car can instantly become a several-thousand-pound missile moving at a high rate of speed when the driver isn’t focused on the road. Impaired driving affects judgement and slows a driver’s reaction time. Distracted driving does some of the same things.

“It takes your attention away from the road and the other vehicles,” DeGeorge said. “It slows your reaction time. How much ground can someone cover while they’re typing out a text message behind the wheel and going 55 to 60 miles per hour? You aren’t going to stop on a dime. If you look up and find yourself weaving out of your line and another car is coming at you, it might be the same thing as pointing a weapon at them. That’s basically what’s happening in that situation.”

Distracted driving is a problem everywhere, and it has cost lives in southeast Minnesota. As a witness to such a fatal accident, DeGeorge stressed it’s something he’ll never forget, both as a law enforcement officer and a human being.

“For me, it was an instant feeling of regret for what happened,” he said. “When you think that just minutes earlier, this person was safely driving down the road and a split-second decision to do something like read or send a text message resulted in someone innocent being killed.

“It wasn’t something like a crime of passion. Someone didn’t spend all day drinking at a bar and get behind the wheel. It was someone that could have been on their way home, to church, or to a kid’s school event. It didn’t have to happen. It’s not a malicious act. It’s someone doing something as simple as not paying attention and wound up having the most tragic results possible.”

There will be an escalating series of fines starting on Aug. 1. The first ticket is $50 and an appearance in court, which also will include court fees. The next ticket will jump to $275, as do any subsequent tickets. Also, there are court fees with each ticket.

“It was so important to law enforcement officers around the state to get this law passed. We see so many distracted drivers every day,” Inglett said. “The numbers are there when we talk about distracted driving. Not looking at the road and not paying attention to your surroundings when you’re driving a huge metal object can be just as detrimental and deadly as impaired driving.”

Inglett is a young officer who hasn’t had to respond to a tragic accident from distracted driving yet. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t seen and spoken to people who’ve been involved in that type of accident.

“During my training at the police academy, we heard a talk from someone that had killed another driver while they were distracted,” she recalled. “The lasting impact those words had on our class was incredible. We were able to see crime scene photos from the case, so even though we weren’t there firsthand, we saw what the worst results could look like.

“The pictures of the victim and the vehicles were heartbreaking. A simple decision like picking up someone’s phone took somebody else’s life.”