The Hands-Free Law, which prohibits talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, has been the law in Minnesota since Aug. 1, 2019, but compliance with the law among teens hasn’t fully caught on with teens.
Wright County Commissioner Christine Husom said the topic was discussed at most recent meeting of Safe Communities of Wright County, of which Husom was elected chairperson for 2020. The group reviewed the results of the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, which anonymously poses several questions to high school juniors from every county in the state in order to get an honest assessment of different topics.
The Minnesota Department of Health has administered the survey since 1989, conducting the survey every three years. The survey includes an array of questions dealing with youth behaviors, including alcohol/tobacco/drug usage, violence and sexual activity as well as positive behaviors and connection to family, school and communities. In 2019, more than 85 percent of school districts participated in the survey.
Despite facing pretty significant penalties for talking or texting while driving – including court costs, the fine is $120 for a first offense and $300 for all subsequent offenses – more than half of the Wright County students polled said they do text or talk when driving to some degree.
“One of the questions was ‘How many times do you send or read text messages while driving,’” Husom said. “In Wright County, 52 percent of males and 54 percent of females reported they do send or read a text or e-mail while driving.”
The survey gave students options including responses of “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes” and “often”. Of the responses, 35 percent said they never do, 30 percent answered rarely, 15 percent said sometimes and slightly under 10 percent said often. Another 10 percent said they don’t drive so such questions for them were moot.
Husom said that the higher percentages of students who text and drive stands out because other survey questions had significantly lower numbers of students who don’t comply with the applicable laws.
“The texting portion is different from most other areas where the students were surveyed,” Husom said. “When asked about seat belts, 82 percent of males and 86 percent of females said they always wear their seat belts. The same holds true for drinking or using drugs and then driving. In that, 92 percent of males and 93 percent of females said they have never driven after using alcohol or drugs. Those numbers are significant and are numbers that you would expect, but the texting number is a problem because, like those others questions, it is against the law to text and drive in Minnesota.”
The enforcement of the law is what is most likely to cause change, but, unlike seat belts and impaired driving, many people – young and old alike – don’t think that texting and driving is unlawful, despite data that shows more people are killed in distracted driving accidents in Minnesota and nationwide than by drunk drivers.
While the majority of people understand the reason for the law and comply with it, distracted driving remains a problem in Minnesota and, even after six of months of it being illegal, a troubling number of people continue to take part in distracted driving.
“It’s rampant and it’s not just kids,” Husom said. “I see people on their phones, whether they’re talking or texting, almost every day. It’s a law that has been in place for some time now and it just doesn’t seem that people are complying with it like you wish they would. It’s still a problem.”