‘We will save lives': Minnesota lawmakers strike deal on hands-free driving

Minnesota lawmakers struck a deal Monday to ban drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode.

They’re poised to make Minnesota the 18th state to ban hand-held phone use behind the wheel. The House and Senate are likely to pass the bill this week, and Gov. Tim Walz is expecting to sign the measure into law on Friday.

The compromise version restricts GPS use to hands-free mode – the House’s position – and excludes a $250,000 traffic stop study, which the Senate had not wanted in the final version.

“We’re making history today and in this session. This has been a long time in coming,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

Lawmakers, including Hornstein, said family members of distracted driving victims had changed the conversation around the issue. Such legislation has been proposed for more than a decade but has failed every year, including in 2018.

Families have been coming to the Capitol to testify in favor of cell phone restrictions all session. Few were in the conference committee room when Monday’s deal was announced, but Vijay Dixit, whose daughter Shreya died in 2007 in a distracted-driving crash, watched from the side.

“We will save lives,” said Dixit, of Eden Prairie. “Thank you to everyone that has been praying for us. Thank you to all the families who have joined here. I’m just here because I’m able to come. I speak on behalf of hundreds of families.”

The bill passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly last month. But the chambers approved different versions, forcing the bill into conference committee.

Some lawmakers said they opposed the legislation in years past but are now in favor of it. For that, state Sen. John Jasinski credited the family members. But Jasinski said the restrictions would be an adjustment – even for him.

“It’s time we do this. Is it going to be difficult for a lot of us? It is,” said Jasinski, R-Faribault. “I’m sure we’ll take a little flack for it, but it’s something we have to do.”

Drivers will legally be able to use scarves, hijabs, or other clothing to hold the phone as long as it only requires one touch to activate the device, Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said.

Langer said MSP is planning a public outreach campaign to explain the new restrictions, which would take effect Aug. 1. The fine would be $275.

“In the future, we can look back on today and say this was an incredible step forward that will save lives and reduce injuries,” Langer told lawmakers.