ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Motorists will be required to use hands-free devices to talk on the phone while driving on Minnesota roads starting Aug. 1 under a bill that Gov. Tim Walz signed Friday to crack down on the growing problem of distracted driving.
Walz paid tribute to dozens of people surrounding him at the ceremony who held pictures of loved ones they lost in crashes caused by distracted drivers. He said he knows their pain will never leave, but that lives will be saved because of their years of sharing heartbreaking stories to pass the law. Minnesota is joining 16 other states and the District of Columbia with similar laws.
"We will reduce deaths," Walz said. "Sons will come home. Mothers will come home. Our children and grandchildren will come home because of the work that you did."
The new law marks an important bipartisan success for the Democratic governor and a Legislature divided between a Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate . More diplomacy will critical for resolving the big partisan differences that remain on taxes and spending if lawmakers are going to complete their work by the May 20 deadline.
Vijay Dixit, of Eden Prairie, whose daughter, Shreya, died in a crash caused by a distracted driver in 2007, was there to see 12 years of his campaigning become law.
"I hope that distracted driving, which was a tongue-twister in 2007, will disappear from the face of this earth over the next few years that we have this law in place," he said.
The chief author in the House, Democrat Frank Hornstein, of Minneapolis, said the "courage, perseverance and dignity" of the survivors changed hearts and minds at the Capitol. The converts included the chief Senate author, Republican Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, who said he didn't support the proposal four years ago but came to realize after hearing the families' stories that he was in a position to make a difference.
The law bars motorists from holding and using cellphones or other wireless devices while driving. Built-in Bluetooth systems meet the legal requirements that systems be voice-activated, but so do cheap hands-free mounts sold by many stores and online retailers. There's an exception for emergency calls. Drivers can still use GPS navigation apps, stream music and listen to podcasts if they're voice activated or if they start them up while they're still parked.
The penalty for a first offense will be a $50 fine, rising to $275 for additional violations. Minnesota already bans texting and emailing while driving.
Separate legislation has already passed the Senate to stiffen existing penalties for texting while driving. That bill would also treat drivers who kill or injure someone while texting or talking on a non-hands-free phone more like drunken drivers with felony-level penalties. But the measure is still in committee in the House, where it's unclear if it will pass this year.
According to the Department of Public Safety, at least 27 of Minnesota's approximately 380 traffic deaths last year were related to distractions of all kinds, and officials consider cellphones the fastest-growing distraction. Col. Matt Langer, chief of the State Patrol, said the real toll from distracted driving is likely higher.
Langer called on Minnesotans to start complying with the law now rather than waiting for it to take effect Aug. 1. The department will now launch a public education campaign using $700,000 in federal funds so that all Minnesota drivers learn what they need to do to comply with the law.