Since Minnesota’s hands-free law went into effect Aug. 1, state officials say more than 5,000 citations have been issued to drivers who were holding their phones in their hands.

Minnesota courts show there were 2,729 hands-free citations statewide in September; 2,317 in August, reports Scott Wasserman, public information officer, Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Locally, just one citation has been issued for violating the state’s hands-free law, and that involved a crash that occurred while the driver was using his cell phone, said Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund.

Hedlund and International Falls Police Capt. Mike Kostiuk say local officers are first trying to education the driving public about the law, before issuing tickets.

In Koochiching County, 21 traffic stops by deputies and police have resulted in warnings since August, law enforcement logs show, Hedlund noted.

And, they said in just two months, the law is making a difference in driver behavior.

“While it is still relatively early, I do think the law is having some impact,” Hedlund said. “It appears more people are pulled off to the side of the road if they need to use their phone.”

Hedlund said the law seems to have made drivers aware of how much they use their phone while driving.

“It really had just become another habit for a lot of people,” he said. “As with any habits, they are hard to break, but I do think folks are making a conscious decision not to use their phone while driving most of the time.”

Kostiuk said most people are aware of the law.

“Discretion is a major component of policing and if we can change the behavior with education rather than citations, we will do so,” he said.

Local police believe the hands-free law will benefit the community.

“Operating a vehicle carries with it inherent and sometimes unforeseen risks that require split second decisions. By limiting the driver’s distractions, we can expect to see safer roads as a result,” Kostiuk said.

In 12 of 15 states with hands-free laws, traffic fatalities have decreased by an average of 15 percent, according to the National Safety Council and Insurance Federation based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

This law will also help law enforcement keep Minnesotans safe, say state officials. 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.

Hedlund said deputies will continue to educate the public on the dangers of distracted driving and issue citations if warranted.

“We appreciate the motoring public taking this issue seriously and not putting other drivers at risk,” he said.

There is no way yet to determine the long-term effect, but Kostiuk said officers will continue to enforce the law, adding people may contact law enforcement if they wish to report a distracted driver.

“The IFPD would like to remind drivers that driving is a complex series of decisions that require complete focus on the part of the driver,” he said. “Distracted driving not only endangers you but everyone on the road with you.”

More information

Meanwhile, the law is clear: Police don’t have to determine what drivers are doing with their cellphones, just the fact they have it in their hands is a violation.

The law allows a driver to use voice commands or single-touch activation to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts and get directions.

Minnesota became the 19th state with a hands-free law. Fines are $50 for the first offense and $275 for each subsequent violation, plus court costs.

State officials report drivers cited for violating the law varied greatly in age – a 19-year-old man was caught holding his phone up for a FaceTime call, while a 72-year-old man was going 30 mph in the left lane of a 55 zone, distracted by the phone held up to his ear because his Bluetooth wasn’t working.

Hands-free law violations happened all over the state, urban and rural – from Minneapolis to the unincorporated community of Pengilly, population 270.

Violators consisted of both men and women. One woman was holding a phone up to her ear and didn’t see the State Patrol car behind her for five minutes. When cited, she admitted to the trooper that holding the phone in her hand to talk is a hard habit to break. Another woman, wearing a headset, told a trooper she never talks with the phone in her hand – but she was pulled over for scrolling through her recent calls to find a phone number.

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