Law aims to cut distracted driving

FAIRMONT — Distracted driving has become a dangerous issue, one that a new Minnesota law looks to combat.

On April 19, Gov. Tim Walz signed what is commonly known as the hands-free bill, which affects cell-phone use in motor vehicles. It will go into effect later this summer.

Chief Michael Hunter of the Fairmont Police Department discussed the changes and what they mean.

“Currently under Minnesota state law, nobody can text and drive,” he said. “That also includes sending messages, checking your Facebook or anything that involves a communication device. Right now, people over the age of 18 can hold their phone and make phone calls, and that’s one of the things that’s going to change on Aug. 1, 2019.

“The law has expanded those restrictions. So all drivers in the state of Minnesota will not be allowed to have a telephone, communication device or anything that’s able to send, receive, transmit data or make phone calls in their hand while they’re driving.

“There’s some options to get around that such as using the technology in your vehicle such as Bluetooth or other hands-free options that come with vehicles. So as I’m driving I can still make calls or use my phone as a GPS, or to play music, but it can’t be in my hand. It has to be affixed to your dash or something where you’re not picking it up. It has to be one-touch operations, like you would use on your regular vehicle entertainment center, such as audio controls or anything along those lines where you’re just touching a dial or screen but you’re not picking it up and putting it in your hand.”

Hunter said earpieces also are a viable option, but noted that in Minnesota, you cannot have earpieces in both ears.

He went on to say that while there are exceptions to the law, particularly for law enforcement, people are not likely to see Fairmont officers taking advantage of something deemed dangerous for the public.

“One of the questions that I get most commonly is if a law enforcement officer can still make a phone call and use a wireless communication device, such as their phone or computer in their squad [car],” he said. “Originally they were looking at removing that exception, but it was left in the current bill.

“So law enforcement is exempt, however our best practice for our officers is to continue to use all available options to not find themselves driving in a distracted manner. Our current vehicles are set up with a hands-free option that we order as part of our squad car packages, because we do receive a lot of phone calls during our shifts. But we need to do that in a safe manner, and a lot of times the technology that helps us can also be a distraction and we want to make sure our officers are also operating the vehicles in a safe manner.”

Hunter said the big issue comes down to safety and having people focusing more on their driving.

“Over the last few years, the number of distracted driving citations has greatly increased throughout the state of Minnesota,” he said. “Back in 2013 there was 2,177 texting while driving citations in Minnesota, which correlated with 68 fatalities and 241 serious injuries. The 2018 numbers show that there was four times the amount of citations issued, at 9,545 across the state, but fatalities were down to 27 and serious injuries were down to 178.

“So with the increase of enforcement, we’ve seen a decrease in the fatalities and serious injuries attributed to distracted driving. We’d like to see that trend continue so we don’t have any of those related to distracted driving.”

When asked about other distracted driving, Hunter said that while there are people who get distracted by things like eating or holding pets in their laps, the biggest problem remains electronic communication devices.

Hunter reminds people that children watch their parents, and it probably isn’t a good idea to wait until Aug. 1 to change their driving habits.

“Start looking at your options now. If you don’t have some options available in your car, start looking at picking up an earpiece or after market Bluetooth accessory. The bottom line is we’d rather have people focusing on their driving than focusing on their conversations while driving.

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