Hands-free driving requirement clears Minnesota Senate, allows scarves, hijabs to hold phone

Minnesota Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday to ban drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode, clearing a major roadblock that has held up the bill before.

The Senate’s 56-10 vote comes one week after the bill cruised to passage in the House. It clears the way for negotiations between the two chambers over their differing versions, which include whether to allow drivers to use headscarves to hold phones.

The hands-free bill got stuck in the Senate a year ago, and family members of distracted driving victims were thrilled that it cleared that hurdle this year. 

“Every time we testify, we relive the moment that our loved ones were taken away because of one person’s behavior that can take 30 seconds,” Danielle Wishard-Tudor told reporters while choking back tears after the vote. Wishard-Tudor’s brother, Jean-Claude Wishard, was killed by a distracted driver near Minnetrista in 2017.

Minnesota would become the 17th state to pass a hands-free requirement. Offenders would face a $50 fine for the first offense and $300 for subsequent violations.

Advocates and lawmakers behind the effort have said every day they wait, more lives are at risk.

“It’s phone calls, it’s Snapchat, it’s taking selfies, it’s changing the radio station on Pandora. We just have to stop doing this,” said state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson.

Lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Tim Walz have named the issue as a priority, and supporters have never been closer to getting a hands-free bill to the governor’s desk. But it will require negotiation to get a final version that can pass both chambers.

The Senate’s version exempts GPS usage from the hands-free requirement. On a 37-29 vote Monday, senators approved another change that would let people use scarves, hijabs or other clothing to hold a phone.

“The whole idea is we do not want individuals using their hands in any shape, form or fashion,” said state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. “They could put it around their neck or in their pocket – just as long as both hands are on the steering wheel.”

Some senators who voted against the bill said they were concerned that drivers would have difficulty adjusting. Opponents offered amendments to lower the fines and require that offenders take a distracted driving course, both those failed.

One senator said a businessman in his district was worried he would no longer be able to make phone calls while driving between job sites.

“That’s his office time,” said state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. “That’s how he makes sales for his next customers to come in, and he’s very concerned about it.”

Family members of distracted driving victims cheered when the Senate took the vote. Minutes afterward, they sensed they were nearing the finish line.

“A number of these families have waited eight, nine, 10 years for some form of justice,” said Greg Tikalsky, whose father was killed in New Prague while walking to get his morning newspaper. “We believe that this is clearly a step toward justice for many of these families.”