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Other’s Opinion: No excuses for not following hands-free law

The Free Press

No hand-holding for this anniversary.

It’s been a year since Minnesota’s hands-free driving law went into effect, and we can do so much better abiding by it. Maybe some drivers do need hand-holding to help them follow the law — public safety officials thought so and increased enforcement of it earlier this month.

The hands-free law was passed with the intent of getting motorists to concentrate on driving. It is illegal for drivers to have a cellphone or other electronic device in their hands. In the crashes where cause can be determined — and that’s not the case with all of them — distracted or inattentive driving is a factor in at least one in four crashes, resulting in at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries annually in Minnesota, according to Toward Zero Deaths, the state’s interagency program to reduce traffic fatalities.

Those are way too many lives impacted by drivers’ bad decisions to prioritize activity on their phone over paying attention to the road and their surroundings. A child chasing a ball can instantly run into a street or a pedestrian can be halfway into a crosswalk before a distracted driver looks up to notice. We’ve all seen those oblivious drivers who seem to be looking at their laps while driving by. They haven’t dropped the habit of checking their phones constantly.

During the first 11 months of the hands-free law, 19,160 drivers on Minnesota roads were cited for failing to comply with it. The average person checking or sending text messages takes their eyes off the roadway for about 4.6 seconds each time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety reports that some drivers cited for breaking the hands-free law say they are having a hard time breaking the habit. Other drivers have phone holders but aren’t using them, or they think law enforcement isn’t conducting traffic stops during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Many speeders also found out the hard way that enforcement has not disappeared because of the outbreak.)

Of course, lots of drivers are obeying the law and installed devices to hold their phones when they need to use it while driving. The data show fewer crashes have been attributed to distracted driving during the year, although a lot of people have reduced their driving during the pandemic, so we’ll have to wait a while to firm that up for a long-term look.

Driving is a privilege that depends on people acting responsibly to ensure that those on the road are as safe as possible. Do your part and put down your phones and make driving your priority when behind the wheel. Let’s mark the next anniversary of the law with as many people as possible.