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Walz to sign hands-free cellphone bill following Senate's approval

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, right, and Sen. Scott Newman lead a conference committee April 8, 2019, at the Minnesota Capitol to work through differences between the House and Senate bills banning cellphone use behind the wheel except when used in hands-free mode. Michael Brun / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Don’t touch that mobile telephone in your vehicle.

Well, you can touch it once if you are using it to make or take a call while driving. But don’t hold it up to your ear. If using the phone’s navigation capabilities, go ahead and touch the screen as needed.

Those are the basic rules in a Minnesota hands-free phone measure to become law Aug. 1. Gov. Tim Walz will sign the bill at 10 a.m. Friday, his office said.

The Senate passed 48-12 a compromise hands-free bill Thursday, April 11, two days after the House OK’d it 107-19.

The Legislature has talked about ways to keep cellphones out of motorists’ hands for years. The bill set to become law this summer was the topic of House and Senate negotiators who put slightly differing versions of the bill together in recent days.

“Cellphone abuse on the roadways is a growing problem,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said. “This isn’t about restricting liberties; it’s a matter of public safety. This is bipartisan legislation that comes out of months of work between the House, Senate and stakeholders, with the goal of getting drivers to use their phones in a hands-free manner, or put it down.”

Similar legislation “has had a dramatic impact in other states where it has passed,” Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, told fellow representatives.

The bill allows motorists to touch the phone only once for calls, although that will not apply to emergency calls. The concept is that drivers would use the voice-control mode of their phones.

It allows use of navigation systems if they are mounted to the vehicle.

Any electronic device, such as a radio, incorporated into a vehicle also does not fall under this bill. Use of two-way radios is allowed.

Violation of the law could bring a $50 fine for first violations and $275 for subsequent ones.

Distracted driving, such as using a phone, accounted for 20% of traffic deaths from 2013 to 2017. On average, 53 people a year die from distracted-driving caused accidents.

Families of distracted driving victims testified at several legislative committees this year, with lawmakers crediting them for getting the much-discussed bill to pass.