ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a ban on drivers using cell phones except in hands-free mode Friday, saying the new restrictions would save lives.
In doing so, Minnesota will become the 18th state to prohibit drivers from holding phones. The House and Senate both passed the bill overwhelmingly earlier in the week. The law will take effect Aug. 1.
Walz signed the bill in his Capitol reception room with two dozen family members of people killed in distracted driving crashes in attendance.
“I feel the deepest apologies that it took this long for many of you,” Walz said, appearing emotional as he spoke.
Such restrictions have been proposed at the Capitol for nearly two decades. Lawmakers credited the families for their advocacy, which they said pushed the issue over the top this year.
“You changed my heart,” said state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “I listened to these stories in the transportation committee, and four years ago, I would not have supported this bill. And today I stand here as the chief author.”
Drivers caught holding their phones will face a $50 fine, with repeat offenders looking at a $275 ticket. People will be allowed to make calls or use GPS without typing on their phones.
The Minnesota State Patrol has said drivers using scarves, hijabs or shirt pockets to hold their phones will be legal. Drivers can use phones in hand-held phones in emergency situations.
The State Patrol will do a public awareness campaign over the next four months before the law takes effect, using about $700,000 in federal funds, said Col. Matt Langer. The agency will use billboards and do outreach in schools, he said.
“By Aug. 1, no Minnesotan should be surprised by this law. That’s our absolute goal,” Langer said.
While many victims’ family members attended the ceremony, only one spoke. Vijay Dixit, whose daughter Shreya died in 2007 in a distracted driving crash, talked about how long he’d been advocating for a change in the law.
“This is governor number three since we lost Shreya,” said Dixit, gesturing to Walz. “Governor, we are so honored that you will have the honor of making it work.”
Separate legislation increasing the fines for texting while driving has passed the Senate but is stuck in the House. That bill, authored by state Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, would increase the fine for a first-time offense to $150, from $50, and lengthen the prison time for a distracted driver that severely injures or kills someone.
Langer said the State Patrol’s campaign would not include the message that hands-free driving was distraction-free driving.
It’s unlikely that Minnesota will ever ban drivers from using cell phones entirely, Newman said.
“It would be asking as much (as) prohibiting people from holding a conversation with their seat-mate or changing the radio, and I don’t think our culture is going to change that much,” he said.