January 5, 2006 at 5:43 a.m.
State Representative Pete Nelson, R-Lindstrom, and State Senator Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, joined Kathy Swanson, Director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, and Colonel Mark Dunasky, Chief of the Minnesota State Patrol held a joint news conference last Thursday to spread the word so that every teenage driver in Minnesota knows to stay off the phone.
"Whether you are traveling down the interstate or just going around the corner, teenagers need to know that talking on their cell phone while driving is not only a bad idea, but it is illegal as well," Nelson said. Nelson and Nienow authored the law and guided its passage through the 2005 legislature. The law applies to all types of cell phones, including hands-free or wireless devices.
"Holding a conversation with someone outside the car is the distraction that teen drivers cannot handle," Nienow said. "Holding a phone to your ear or having an earpiece makes little difference in terms of safety."
The law makes an exception allowing a teenager to use a phone in the case of an emergency or to prevent a crime. Both legislators said having a teenager who can call 911 in case of an emergency is an important safety net for teens and parents.
The Office of Traffic Safety is raising awareness by making available a packet of information including sample news releases, public service announcements and high school public address announcements. In addition to its work with the cell phone law, OTS is using 2006 to promote safety for teenage drivers through a variety of programs including the Buckle Up Teens! commercial challenge featuring commercials produced by teenagers that promote seatbelt use.
If caught using a cell phone while driving, a teenager faces a penalty up to $100 and could lose the ability to get their full driver's license for as long as one year.
"Our goal has never been to make criminals out of teenagers," Nelson said. "It is to keep them safe and focused on the road. We would rather see teenagers stop using cell phones all together while driving and get home safe."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Minnesota is the eight state to enact such a law, joining Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Texas. Nelson and Nienow said they have no intention of authoring or promoting a wider ban that would include drivers of all ages.
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