A bipartisan bill to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving will increase the safety of Minnesota roads and prevent needless tragedies of innocent victims hit and often killed by distracted drivers.

Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill on Friday. The legislation makes it a misdemeanor to hold a cellphone while driving. In essence it requires hands-free use of electronic devices by motorists. It takes effect Aug. 1 and public safety officials plan an extensive education campaign on the new law.

It was troubling it took this long to pass the common-sense safety legislation, already in force in 16 other states. The DFL House and GOP Senate finally came together on the legislation that many advocates say they’ve been trying to pass since 2001.

The DFL had pushed for passage last year, but its legislative journey was stopped by the GOP Senate for reasons that seemed to revolve around a lack of urgency. To their credit, the Senate GOP moved forward this year with GOP Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson leading the way as the chief Senate author.

There is a mounting body of evidence to support the new restrictions. Distracted driving was the cause of one in five serious injuries or deaths in 2016 and 2017 in Minnesota. Figures released by the public safety department show 27 people were killed and another 178 were injured in distracted driving crashes in 2018. Texting while driving citations have more than quadrupled since 2013.

The new law will make it a misdemeanor to use a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device while driving with a first-time fine of $50. We believe that fine is inadequate given typical fines for speeding can approach $100 as a starting point. A second offense for cellphone violation will carry a $275 fine. Legislation is also being considered to make fines even tougher, and we encourage that approach.

When states pass hands-free cellphone laws, distracted driving accidents drop by an average of 15 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This legislation was long overdue. We credit families of victims for the relentless lobbying push to get lawmakers to see the light on this important safety issue.

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