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Our View: Don't wait on law to hang up and drive

After five years of frustrating inaction in St. Paul, with deaths and bloodshed only mounting on our highways, the Minnesota Legislature — finally and thankfully — voted for common sense and safety and a law to ban holding a cell phone while driving. Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill last week after it was passed by the DFL-majority House and Republican-controlled Senate.

Bipartisan cooperation and agreement in itself was worth cheering, but families gathered behind the governor at the signing were able to celebrate for more poignant and personal reasons. They held large portraits of loved ones who needlessly and tragically have been killed in traffic accidents caused by distracted driving.

"Many of the families who have been affected ... and who have been tirelessly advocating for this law are the reason we're here today," Walz said, according to a press release from his office. "Minnesotans deserve safe roads and this bipartisan bill helps prevent senseless accidents and improves our public safety."

Minnesota law already prohibits texting, using email, and browsing social media while driving, with a $50 fine for first offenses. Talking on a cell phone in hands-free mode with voice-activated commands will still be allowed under the new law. So will using GPS or other cell phone functions like music applications while driving. That's as long as the device isn't in the driver's hand where it's most distracting.

Fortunately for contractors and others whose livelihoods depend on being able to communicate while on the go, plenty of options via technology are available to make and return calls with both hands still on the steering wheel. In addition, the new law will not apply to drivers outside of traffic or in emergency situations.

Minnesota's hands-free law goes into effect Aug. 1. But there's no reason to wait until then to hang up and pay more attention to your driving — especially in a state where one out of every four motor vehicle deaths is due to distracted driving and where distracted driving contributes to 45 deaths, on average, every year and 204 life-changing injuries, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

Hands-free laws have reduced traffic fatalities by an average of 15 percent in other states with such laws, the National Safety Council and Insurance Federation have reported, basing their findings on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Additionally, "This law will help law enforcement keep Minnesotans safe. Because drivers aren't allowed to have a phone in their hand, it'll be easier for law enforcement to see violations and take more effective action," Toward Zero Deaths, a nonprofit to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, said at its site, minnesotatzd.org.

In a state where 94 percent of teens acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving and 35 percent admit to doing it anyway, according to Toward Zero Deaths, action long has been needed to reduce the heartbreak caused by entirely preventable traffic accidents.

Minnesotans can put their hands together for their state joining 17 others and Washington, D.C. in enacting hands-free legislation — even if it frustratingly took five long and deadly years to get it done.

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