Come Thursday, Aug. 1, the state of Minnesota will be joining a club of states and territories (plus the District of Columbia) with hands-free driving laws.

The bipartisan hands-free bill bans the use of handheld cellphones while driving aims to prevent distracted driving crashes. While Minnesota drivers -- both residents and out-of-state travelers -- should not have a phone in their hand or held against their head, motorists are advised to use voice-activated features such as messaging or GPS, as well as headsets or one-touch devices for communication. Drivers will not be cited for holding a phone if the situation is an emergency, such as calling 911.

There is no grace period for drivers on Minnesota roads. The hands-free driving law begins Aug. 1, with full application of the law in terms of enforcement and punitive measures.

The first offense is a $50 ticket plus court fees, which could add up to about $130, and the second and later tickets are each $275 plus court fees.

The law comes after an 18% spike in fatalities as a result of distracted driving between 2014 to 2015 alone, while 1 out of 4 crashes and 1 out of 5 fatalities involved distracted driving, according to the Minnesota Safety Council. Statistics indicate as many as 60,000 crashes in the state of Minnesota between 2014 to 2018 involved distracted drivers.

In turn, reports from 12 states with hands-free driving laws have shown an average reduction in traffic fatalities by 15% annually since their enactment.

Tips and technology

According to the MInnesota Department of Public Safety, drivers are advised to do the following to comply with the hands-free driving law:

  • Do not use phones when driving. Instead, place device in the glove compartment, trunk or backseat. Or, activitate a do-not-disturb app and concentrate on the road.

  • If communication while driving is a necessity, drivers are advised to purchase and use a single-earphone that has a microphone incorporated into the design. However, using earphones or earbuds in both ears at the same time is illegal in the state of Minnesota.

  • If the vehicle is capable, wirelessly pair the phone with the car or truck console to incorporate the vehicle’s touch interface in everything from audio selection and volume, to phone calls, text messages and GPS routing. Drivers are also advised to purchase a Bluetooth speaker or earphone to pair with the phone, which allow hands-free operation of the device. Prices for these typically fall in the $10 to $50 range.

  • Purchasing an auxiliary cable to connect the phone to a vehicle via its phone jack is another option. Now interfaced with the vehicle’s audio system, drivers should be able to operate their phone via voice or single touch. These cords can be purchased for less than $5 and, in the case of older vehicle models, can be connected to the car through an adapter with a cassette player. Cassette adapters typically cost roughly $30.

  • To keep the phone in an accessible, but unobtrusive place, drivers are advised to purchase a phone holder or mount to clip the device to the dash, with the phone securely locked in place and its interface accessible to the driver for voice-activated or one-touch purposes. Differing widely in construction and sophistication, these mounts can cost anywhere from $5 to $50, on average.

Exsted chimes in

For Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted, the new law serves to clarify and define a gray area in Minnesota statutes that places drivers and law enforcement in a difficult situation. While drivers can be cited for texting at the wheel, he said, often drivers were found to be using data or making calls when arrested.

As it’s difficult to say whether the driver is texting, or taking calls and using data while driving, it’s difficult to prove the law was violated in court. For officers on patrol, it often came down to, “Is it worth the time,” Exsted said, to pull someone over and cite them for texting and driving.

“That was the struggle that was happening,” Exsted said. “If the officer saw someone on their phone it would still be an investigation. Were they texting, are they lying to us? But now with the hands-free law, in theory, that should eliminate all of that. I like the state’s approach on what you should be doing -- not what you shouldn’t be doing.”

He said motorists need to be focused on the road and avoid distractions of all kinds, not just phone usage. Changing the radio, eating or drinking are all considered distractions, he noted.

Review

With Thursday, Aug. 1, looming on the calendar, it’s sensible to review the new law and how it looks to affect law enforcement of the roadways going forward. This information is courtesy of Forum News Service reporter Dana Ferguson and her June 28 story “Law restricting drivers' phone use starts Aug. 1.”

What’s not allowed under the law?

You will not be able to hold your phone in your hand or up to your ear while you are driving in the state of Minnesota.

Are there exceptions?

Yes, if you are using your phone in a hand-held mode to call in the event of an emergency or using GPS in a hands-free or voice-activated setting you will be covered. Typing in an address in GPS will not be covered, but using the GPS when you’ve typed in an address before starting your trip would be allowed.

What if I want to listen to a podcast?

You will still be able to stream podcasts through your phone, but you’ll only be able to start them through a voice-activated setting or a one-touch setting. Or you can turn them on before you start your trip.

What if I’m at a stop sign or stoplight?

The law still applies as you’re still operating a vehicle. Holding your phone would still be a violation.

Can I text from my smartwatch?

No, the same rules apply as for phones. You can check the time or use the watch in a voice-activated or one-touch setting, but you can’t swipe or type to send messages or other communication.

Can I use a headset to talk on the phone?

Yes, as long as you’re not holding the phone and only have one earbud in or one ear covered by a headset. Having earbuds in both ears is a violation of state law.

Can I use my phone if it’s tucked into a hijab or head scarf?

Yes, you can talk on your phone while driving if a phone is placed to your ear under a head scarf or hijab as long as it doesn’t obstruct your vision. It actually doesn’t matter where the phone is — the seat next to you, a shirt pocket, whatever — as long as it’s not in your hands or blocking your vision and is in a hands-free or one-touch mode.

What if I have a flip phone?

Opening a flip phone to answer a call would be allowed if the phone is placed on speaker mode or a driver could otherwise communicate without holding the phone. Texting or dialing on the phone while driving would be in violation of the law.

I’m under 18, does the law apply to me?

Yes, and teen drivers face additional restrictions while behind the wheel. Drivers under the age of 18 can’t call, text or otherwise interact with their phones while driving. The exceptions are that teens can listen to music or podcasts and use phones as a GPS while driving as long as those are set in one-touch or hands-free modes. And emergency calls would also be allowed.

I’m not from Minnesota, can I still get pulled over?

Yes. Anybody coming to Minnesota has to comply with Minnesota law on this issue. Out-of-state residents traveling to Minnesota can also expect to see more billboards or other roadway notifications about the law as they enter the state.

Some for the road

Here are some real-life examples of how texting and driving, or operating a phone while at the wheel, can distract drivers on the road:

  • According to studies by the University of Utah, using a cellphone while driving -- whether hands-free or hand-held -- delays a driver’s reaction time as much as having an alcohol-concentration level of .08%.

  • According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at 55 mph, texting and driving is equivalent to traveling the length of a football field blindfolded.

  • In a related note, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sending or reading a text message redirects a driver’s eyes off the roads for crucial lengths of time, typically five seconds or more.

  • According to Virginia Tech, text messaging doubles the chances of a crash or near-crash compared to non-distracted drivers.