When he’s not policing, Ryan Morris is a private citizen. In that way, the Duluth Police Department sergeant is like anybody else: He’s had to get prepared to go hands-free when it comes to smartphone use behind the wheel of his older pickup truck.

“I don’t have automatic Bluetooth hookup and I don’t have auxiliary input either,” Morris said. “I actually had to go out and buy a Bluetooth speaker with a magnetic mount to get the vehicle set up for hands-free. I encourage people to research it and know ahead of time before Aug. 1.”

One week from Thursday, Minnesota joins 15 other states enforcing hands-free cellphone laws for drivers. After it passed overwhelmingly in the Minnesota Legislature, Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law in April. The law makes it illegal to hold a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle. The prevailing expectation is the law will cut roadway deaths by 15 percent — the average reduction of fatalities in states that have already adopted the law.

“If we see a 15 percent reduction, that’s upwards of 30 fewer fatalities (per year),” Col. Mike Langer, chief of Minnesota State Patrol, said.

An electronic message board along I-35 near Midway Road reminds motorists of Minnesota's hands-free law, which becomes effective Aug. 1. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
An electronic message board along I-35 near Midway Road reminds motorists of Minnesota's hands-free law, which becomes effective Aug. 1. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

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The News Tribune spoke with state and local authorities about the new law, learning about its rollout, what authorities are expecting, and how the law alleviates the ambiguity of its predecessor — the ban on texting while driving.

Sources said it was always difficult to enforce the texting ban. Law enforcement had to prove drivers were texting or accessing electronic messages, and drivers could argue that rather than sending or receiving messages they were dialing or looking up a phone number.

The new law “greatly simplifies and clarifies what we’re asking the public to do,” Langer said. “This gets the phone out of their hands altogether.”

The new hands-free law allows drivers to obtain emergency assistance with their phones in the event of “threat to life and safety.” Otherwise, drivers may not hold their phones. Among the law’s other stipulations, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety:

  • Drivers are allowed to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts and get directions by voice command or single-touch activation without holding the phone

  • GPS systems are exempt, and in most cases those systems lock when the vehicle is in motion

  • Cellphones are allowed to be tucked into hijabs or other headscarves

  • Smart watches come with the same restrictions as cellphones, and can only be used by voice or one-touch activation

  • The law does not address eating, grooming, pets or other distractions

  • The penalty for a first infraction is $50 and $275 for later tickets

The last two years of the texting ban yielded 9,500 infractions statewide. Authorities insisted enforcement was only a spoke in the wheel of the new law. The strength of the hands-free law figures to come from its potential to shift the culture.

“There’s no way we’re going to enforce our way out of this epidemic, it’s just so pervasive,” the state’s Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson said. “But we’re going to get over this hump, and I’m confident the way we will is by voluntary compliance. Through education and talking about it, Minnesota drivers will start to make those good decisions.”

Hanson compared the new hands-free law to the state’s 2005 adoption of a 0.08 threshold for legal alcohol-concentration driving limit and 2009’s introduction of the primary seat belt law, which made it illegal to travel without wearing a seat belt — something that had previously been a secondary violation only addressable by law enforcement in conjunction with another infraction. Each of those laws has helped produce a 42 percent reduction in the state's number of roadway fatalities since 2003, down to 380 last year and a modern low of 348 in 2017.

Hanson called the hands-free law a "landmark."

“Once or twice in a career somebody in my field gets an opportunity to work on something this significant,” said Hanson, a one-time state trooper.

Hanson distinguished between cellphone usage and other distractions for the way the phones siphon a driver’s visual, cognitive and physical attention away from the road. He termed it “a trifecta of crash causation” responsible for one-in-five crashes on the state’s roadways, he said. The cellphone distraction is amplified by roads as crowded as they’ve ever been with more vehicle registrations and licensed drivers than at any other time in the state’s history.

“You will crash eventually,” Hanson said of cellphone use while driving. “It’s just a matter of how severely.”

Sources for this story have all encountered fatal crashes and subsequently delivered grim news to families. It’s undoubtedly one of the hardest parts of their job. Anything that can help reduce those circumstances is welcomed, and they’re counting on everyone to help proliferate the message inherent in the law.

Langer said the law is being integrated into driver education programs. And he hopes people will start to speak up when they’re in a vehicle with a cell-phone distracted driver.

“There’s a lot of questions about what you can and can’t do,” Langer said, “but I wish there was a little more passion about not using the phone while driving.”

Abstaining from using the phone is the best recourse. But there are numerous hands-free options available, such as the one Morris incorporated into his pickup. A host of options are outlined at HandsFreeMN.org.

Sergeant Morris is sensitive to a learning curve. It's never easy to change drivers' habits, he said, and drivers "will probably need reminders until it becomes culture."

While the State Patrol can issue official warnings, Duluth police don’t have that mechanism. But they can enter notes into a driver’s history file if officers choose to warn versus write a citation.

“What it’s about for us is public safety,” Morris said. “If we can eliminate a good chunk of distracted driving crashes, we can save lives.”