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Hands free law is for road safety

FAIRMONT — Thursday will be a life-changing day for many motorists as Minnesota’s hands-free law takes effect. This does not mean you can’t use your cell phone, but it does mandate that you can’t hold it while you are driving or stopped at a stop sign. You can still listen to music and podcasts, use your GPS for directions and make or receive calls or texts, but all this usage must be done only by voice command or single-touch activation.

Peggy Sue Garber, a registered nurse who serves as trauma and injury prevention coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont, is a passionate advocate for the new law. She has worked closely with law enforcement throughout the region, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program.

“The Minnesota Department of Health and the Safety Council have put out so much information on this law already. There shouldn’t be anybody who doesn’t know it’s coming,” Garber said. “Law enforcement is not going to let you use ignorance as an excuse to get out of a ticket. There won’t be warnings. When Aug. 1 comes, tickets will be written.”

The fine for your initial offense is $50 plus court fees, but your second offense magnifies into a $275 fine plus court fees.

As with the seat belt law, some drivers might initially choose to defy the rule.

“It took almost 10 years for the seat belt law to work, and it didn’t really start to be effective until money started to be pulled out of people’s pockets to pay for the tickets,” Garber said.

She points to the sobering statistics on distracted driving, which the U.S. Transportation Department has called a dangerous epidemic. Every day in this country, there are eight deaths and 1,200 injured people due to distracted driving. Annually, that is 2,920 deaths and 438,000 injuries.

“That’s a stadium full of people. That’s not alcohol. That’s distracted driving only, and it’s totally preventable. Put down your phone,” she said.

From 2014-2018, distracted driving caused more than 60,000 crashes in Minnesota, or nearly one in five accidents, and resulted in an average of 45 deaths and 204 life-changing injuries, such as traumatic brain injury, each year. Citations for texting while driving rose from 2,177 in 2013 to 9,545 in 2018.

Garber issues a caution to parents who often have a rule that their teenage children must answer their cell phone at all times if a parent is calling. Minnesota law prohibits teens under the age of 18 from using their cell phone while driving, and the new law does not change this.

“But the kids feel pressure to answer the phone when Mom or Dad is calling or texting,” she said. “Parents need to recognize the law. Have your teen call or text before they leave so you don’t have to call while they are driving. Have a conversation. Come up with a plan.”

Parents with younger children also need to be aware of their cell phone habits while driving.

“Young kids learn from their parents,” Garber said. “They’re sitting in the back seat, and Mom is texting on her phone. It’s embedding that information in their mind, that it’s okay to do that. You’re setting the precedent. You’re setting the example. Grownups need to pay attention too.”

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