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The hands-free cellphone bill is now law, so how does it work?

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Gov. Tim Walz signs the "hands free while driving" law during a bill signing ceremony Friday, April 12, 2019, surrounded by families who have advocated for the law. (photo by: Briana Bierschbach)

Minnesota joined 17 states and the District of Columbia on Friday in requiring drivers have their cellphones in hands-free mode while their vehicle is moving. 

Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill in a ceremony on Friday surrounded by family members who lost loved ones to distracted drivers and have been pushing for nearly two decades to change the law.

But there’s still work ahead: the Department of Public Safety, law enforcement and the families are launching a public education campaign to make sure Minnesotans have heard about the new law before it goes into effect in August. 

Here’s a primer on what you can -- and more importantly, can’t -- do under the new law. 

Under the new law, what can’t you do? 

It was already illegal in Minnesota for drivers send text messages and emails while driving, as well as access or browse the internet, but phone calls were allowed if the driver wasn’t distracted. Under the new law, drivers can send messages or place calls while driving only if their device is in hands-free or voice-activated mode. The law makes an exception for emergency calls.

The new law also means things like manually punching in a phone number or an address into a navigation app are not OK, as well as scrolling through a list of contacts or text messages. Hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth, allows a driver to do these things without actually holding their phone. 

After August 1 police can stop anyone they see holding a phone while driving. 

What about my GPS device? Can I use that? 

Yes, the bill does make an exception for GPS devices that are solely used for navigation purposes. But since scrolling is still prohibited, drivers should have their addresses punched in before the vehicle starts moving. 

What if I can make calls through my vehicle? Is that allowed? 

The bill does make an exception for devices that are affixed or physically integrated into a vehicle. 

Can I still listen to a podcast on my phone while driving? 

You’re still allowed to stream a podcast from your phone, but make sure you’ve opened up your podcast app, picked the one you want to listen to and press play before you start moving in the vehicle. Don’t go searching for the In the Dark podcast while your vehicle is moving. A better option is to listen to MPR News on the radio, which doesn't even require a phone.

So, can I receive and send text messages as long as I’m not touching my phone? 

The bill does not specifically ban voice-to-texting, which are text messages that are read to you by your phone or software in your car. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about this because there’s no indication that a text was sent with voice or manually, meaning officers could pull someone over and have no indication that they weren’t touching their phone. 

Can I pick up my phone to make a call while I’m at a stoplight? 

No: You are still technically operating a motor vehicle even while you’re stopped in traffic or at a red light. 

What about tucking the phone into a hijab or scarf wrapped around your head? 

Despite an amendment explicitly allowing this practice added to the Senate bill, that provision was taken out of the bill in negotiations with the House. Law enforcement has argued it’s not necessary because it won't violate the law if the phone is in hands-free mode and if people are not handling the phone between conversations.

What's the penalty if I get caught?

The penalty for violating the law is a petty misdemeanor, carrying a $50 fine for the first violation and a $275 fine for subsequent violations.