Using a phone in a car texting while driving concept for danger of text message and being distracted

Just Put The Phone Down

Greg Sather

Whether you are waiting at a stop light, traveling down the interstate or cruising a scenic Minnesota country road, we see it every day. People are on their cell phones. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were just talking on them, but they are texting, watching YouTube and even researching homes for sale on Zillow. Unfortunately, these people are making the roads a much more dangerous place for themselves and everyone around them.

I do have to admit, my commute to work is often when I touch base with friends. And, I will talk to my mother at least a couple of times a week during my drive home. On numerous occasions, I have had my mother ask if I was still on the line as I stopped talking – and listening – to focus on my driving, whether it be negotiating an interchange or reacting to the unexpected maneuvers of another driver. Fortunately, my eyes were already on the road. Reading and composing texts or searching Google takes your eyes off the road, and if you can’t see it, you can’t react. If you can’t react or your reaction is delayed, you are a distracted driver.

Distracted driving was a problem even before the invention of the AM radio and the automatic transmission. I blame it on the Burma-Shave signs (which, by the way, first appeared along U.S. Highway 65 near Lakeville, MN in 1926), but it probably started earlier than that. Speaking of shaving, I have actually seen people shaving, applying eye make-up and even reading the newspaper or a book. But, according to the 2018 Distracted Driving Report, the invention of the smartphone has coincided with a disturbing increase in the number of accidents ever since. The report found that as smartphone ownership skyrocketed from 55 percent in 2013 to 77 percent in 2017, the number of accidents escalated from 5.7 million to 6.4 million, an increase of 12.3 percent.

Face it, we can’t multi-task. Research shows that, for the most part, we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Furthermore, we can’t seem to refrain from the Pavlovian response we have to the beeps and buzzes of our smartphones. That is why the insurance industry joined the MN Department of Public Safety to help create awareness and pass a new hands-free cell phone law in Minnesota that becomes effective August 1.

Yes, there are already laws on the books that prohibit distracted driving, but law enforcement officials view this as a tool that they can use to enforce those laws. Without having to know or guess whether someone is texting or simply dialing a phone number, they can make the stop and address the issue with a ticket of $50 plus court fees for the first offense or $275 plus court fees for the second and later offenses.

Under the new law, you are prohibited from using a wireless communication device unless solely in a voice-activated or hands-free mode that allows the user to use voice or single-touch commands to initiate and participate in a call or compose, send and listen to electronic messages. The law does allow the hands-free use of your cell phone as a navigation device and to listen to audio-based content, as long as you don’t have to type or scroll while the vehicle is in traffic (which includes sitting at a stop light!) The law does not prohibit the use of systems permanently physically integrated into the vehicle, portable GPS units and two-way radios. Hand-held phone use is allowed to obtain emergency assistance, if there is an immediate threat to life and safety.

The Department of Public Safety has created a website to enhance awareness and help drivers understand the new law. http://handsfreemn.org has FAQ’s and other information about the new law, what you can and can’t do while using a phone in the car, and how the law will affect drivers. This great resource will be updated as more questions are answered. You could even print some of the Hands-Free Law Fact Sheets to hand to customers that visit your office.

Why wait for August 1st? Start having a safer summer today and put the phone down.