We are now 19 days into the month long Minnesota law enforcement crackdown on distracted driving. Have you noticed drivers being more conscientious about not driving and texting? Driving and using a hand-held phone? We haven’t.
Perhaps one of the most universally ignored laws in Minnesota are its “hands-free” and distracted driving laws. Every day, whether driving around your community, or out on the road, you see people obviously on their phones, checking social media posts, text messages, looking at their music lists, or looking at some websites.
As you see the car ahead of you weaving over the center line and back to the shoulder, slowing down and speeding up, you know the driver is on his or her phone. It gets a lot scarier when the person weaving around on the road is coming at you.
At times, we wonder if these laws are even being enforced. The public doesn’t seem to have any concern about being caught or penalized. To give law enforcement some leeway, it is not easy to prove that a person was on his or her phone unless the officer can visibly confirm it.
Unfortunately, the proof the person was distracted by a phone comes out in the court records of a driver being prosecuted for killing someone while driving distracted.
“No one intends to seriously injure or kill someone by driving distracted, but good intentions alone don’t prevent crashes. Smart choices do,” the Minnesota DPS says.
How deadly is distracted driving in Minnesota? In just the last year, the state DPS says its data show it contributed to 2,165 injuries and 26 deaths. Over the past five years, distracted driving has been involved in more than 39,000 crashes and an average of 28 deaths, it says. There have also been 161 serious injuries with life-changing consequences, according to the state DPS.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 3,142 people were killed in America in 2020 due to distracted driving. While Minnesota’s law restricts phone use in vehicles, the NTSB would like to see the law tightened even more.
“Distracted driving is widespread, killing thousands and injuring hundreds of thousands in the United States every year,” it says. “States are making some progress addressing this public health problem, but no state has implemented our recommendation calling for a ban on the use of all personal electronic devices while driving except in case of emergency.”
Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety has put extra emphasis on distracted driving this month to deepen driver awareness of the hands-free and distracted driving laws. In the past, it has conducted its extra enforcement efforts for a few days to a week. This time it has dedicated the entire month of April to distracted driving awareness and enforcement.
“It doesn’t take much for the life story of a distracted driver to end, just like that, or end the life stories of other people on the road,” Mike Hanson, Office of Traffic Safety director, said. “It can end the second they text with the phone in their hand, are lost in thought and not focused on driving, or take their eyes off the road to reach for something. Park the phone, avoid distractions and pay attention. That’s the way to drive smart and keep yourself and others safe and alive.”
Under the state’s hands-free law, drivers can’t be holding their phones and talking while operating a vehicle. They can use voice commands or “single-touch activation without holding the phone to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts, and get directions,” the DPS says. “Accessing or posting on social media, streaming videos, checking box scores and Googling information on a device while driving are all still against the law in Minnesota, even in hands-free mode,” it adds.
Most people have seen the advertisements for cell phone holders that can be mounted in a vehicle for those whose don’t have hands-free technology built into their vehicle. However, hands-free technology in your vehicle, or with the assistance of phone holder, doesn’t address the addictive behavior of reaching for it to check on social media posts or a text message. A person’s eyes are still taken off the road.
The penalties for ignoring the state’s hands-free law include a $100 fine along with court fees for the first offense. A second offense, and additional offenses, can result in a fine of $300 along with court fees.
If you kill someone while violating the law, you are looking at a felony charge of criminal vehicular homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Though those penalties would one day be behind you, you would live with the guilt of the life you took while focused on your phone for the rest of your life.
Distracted driving doesn’t just involve using a cell phone in your vehicle. It also involves looking at radio station dials, navigation systems, eating and drinking, and dealing with children.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety offers the following recommendations to reduce distracted driving:
Cell phones: Park the phone by putting it down, turning it off, placing it out of reach or going hands free.
Music and other controls: Pre-program radio stations and arrange music in an easy-to-access spot. Adjust mirrors and ventilation before traveling.
Navigation: Map out the destination and enter the GPS route in advance.
Eating and drinking: Avoid messy foods and secure drinks.
Children: Teach children the importance of good behavior in a vehicle and model safe driving behavior.
Passengers: Speak up to stop drivers from distracted-driving behavior and offer to help with anything that takes the driver’s attention off the road.
City police, county sheriffs office staff, and state troopers will all be looking to educate, and perhaps fine, people for holding their phones and driving distracted during the month of April. They could use your cooperation in following the laws.