Minnesota to drivers: Put down your phone

Distracted driving
In this Feb. 26, 2013 photo, a man uses his cellphone as he drives through traffic in Dallas. The Minnesota Public Safety Department is about to launch a campaign to educate drivers that the "hands-free" cellphone law takes effect on Aug. 1.
LM Otero | AP 2013

Many drivers haven't gotten the message yet. They need to change their behavior when it comes to using cellphones in their vehicles. And they need to do it soon. Minnesota's new hands-free requirement takes effect on Aug. 1.

State officials announced an education campaign Thursday that will begin next week to stress that holding a cellphone while driving is about to be illegal.

Too many drivers are dangerously distracted by their phones, said Mike Hanson, who heads the office of traffic safety in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

"We've heard the word and we've used the word epidemic. It is that pervasive in our culture, our attachment and our dependency on those electronic devices. So, it does require that cultural change."

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Hanson said the messages will be hard to miss in coming weeks. The media campaign will include radio ads, billboards and social media messages. He said the material will be translated into multiple languages.

Minnesota State Patrol highlights a campaign to promote hands-free driving
Col. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol and other officials held a news conference Thursday to highlight the statewide campaign to get motorists ready for the new hands-free cellphone requirement that begins Aug. 1.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

State Patrol Chief Colonel Matt Langer said the message of the outreach is simple.

"The easy way to just strip right down to the brass tacks is to say you can't hold the phone while you're driving. There are subsequent questions that spin off of that, but if that's the only thing people hear from us, that's good. You can't hold the phone while driving."

There is an exception for life-threatening emergencies. The GPS function of a phone can be also be used, but only in the hands-free mode. Texting while driving is already illegal in Minnesota.

Langer said many motorists support the new law and some already believe the hands-free requirement is in place. He said only a few have no clue about the pending change.

"The ones that are already complying, wonderful. The other two that either don't like it or didn't hear about it or have some questions are the ones we're really trying to reach through this collaborative effort."

Once the law takes effect, motorists will face a $50 fine plus court costs for their first offense and $275 plus court costs for subsequent violations.

The state is partnering with business groups and health care providers to help get the word out about the new law.

Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said he believes the law will have a noticeable impact.

"Georgia is about a year ahead of us in their implementation of the hands-free law. There's some information coming out of the cellphone use world in Atlanta that their traffic is down on their cell systems," he said. "There's also some anecdotal information out of Atlanta that their traffic jams have gotten better."