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Minnesota hands-free cellphone bill clears on way to final vote

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 Service1 / 2
Minnesota State Patrol Chief Col. Matthew Langer addresses a conference committee April 8, 2019, at the state Capitol regarding a hands-free cellphone bill. Langer said the bill has received broad support, and called the committee's unanimous approval of the bill a milestone in the state's history. Michael Brun / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL - Minnesota is close to joining 17 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring drivers to use hands-free technology when making telephone calls.

A conference committee unanimously approved the final wording of a hands-free cell phone bill Monday, April 8, after the Minnesota House and Senate passed different versions of the bill last month. The legislation will return to both chambers for final votes before being sent to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a hands-free cell phone bill into law.

Conference committee chairmen Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, credited the stories of families affected by distracted-driving crashes with getting the bill to this point after failed attempts in previous years.

“It’s the families, it’s the people that have been directly affected by this issue who have lost loved ones,” Hornstein said. “I believe that they were the people that turned the conversation around here in the Capitol. There was a time we couldn’t even get a hearing on this bill.”

Thomas Goeltz's daughter was killed in a 2016 crash in Washington County. He said a hands-free cellphone law in Minnesota would save lives, but it is only a first step.

"As anyone knows who has listened to me present on this topic, only a total ban on the use of cellphones in vehicles will have a significant impact on saving lives," he said. "So we all need to take that advice and refrain from using our phones while we drive."

The bill would set petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for drivers found using phones without using a hands-free or voice-activated feature. The fine for subsequent violations jumps to $275.

Using a device for navigation or to listen to audio-based content, such as music or podcasts, would be exempt from the law as long as the driver does not hold the device. Drivers also would be allowed to use their phone to obtain emergency assistance or when performing official duties in an authorized emergency vehicle.

Video calls, live-streaming and gaming are banned even if done in hands-free or voice-activated mode. The bill does not differentiate between video and audio live-streaming.

Among the differences between the House and Senate bills was an exemption in the Senate version for holding a phone in a scarf or hijab. The provision was removed in the final bill, though Minnesota State Patrol Chief Col. Matthew Langer told committee members Monday the law would allow for drivers to keep their phone in head garments or a front pocket as long as the phone is operated in hands-free mode.

A House provision calling for a research study of traffic stops and possible racial disparities in enforcing the state’s vehicle laws was also removed from the bill, but Hornstein said the study is currently included in the House omnibus transportation bill.

Texting penalties

Also on Monday, the Minnesota Senate passed a separate bill that would increase penalties for texting and driving, expand the state’s criminal vehicular operation crime regarding cell phone use not in hands-free mode and to require driver education and the state’s driver manual to cover distracted-driving topics. The vote was 56-9 in favor.

Chief author Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said the legislation is “complementary” to the hands-free cell phone bill and would “put some teeth into the laws we currently have.”

The bill would increase the fine for a first-time texting-and-driving offense from $50 to $150. The fine for a second offense would be $300, while third and subsequent offenses would bump the penalty from a petty misdemeanor to a misdemeanor and carry a fine of $500 if violated within 10 years of the first two offenses.

Texting and driving citations increased 30 percent in one year, from 7,357 tickets in 2017 to 9,545 tickets in 2018, according to a recent Minnesota Department of Public Safety report.

-Michael Longaecker contributed to this report