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Texting While Driving in Minnesota: A Primer on the Law

23rd May 2017

Texting While Driving in Minnesota: A Primer on the Law

Texting while driving is a topic that has been in the news a lot lately.  Recent months have borne witness to some devastating consequences resulting from the use of cellphones by drivers.  In this post, we will attempt to briefly explain what laws Minnesota has on the books regarding the use of your cellphone while driving.

Where does it apply?

Minnesota’s “texting while driving” law is contained at Minnesota Statutes Section 169.475.  The law prohibits the use of a “wireless communications device” (a cellphone) while a person is operating a vehicle or when the vehicle is “in motion or a part of traffic”.  The scope of this definition does include a person in a stopped vehicle so long as the vehicle is “part of traffic”.  This includes vehicles stopped at a controlled intersection and vehicles stopped in a traffic lane even if traffic is not moving.  No Minnesota court has yet interpreted what it means for a vehicle to constitute a “part of traffic,” but it likely does not include a vehicle parked on the side of a roadway and not in motion.

When does it apply?

The law prohibits a person from composing, reading, or sending an “electronic message” while operating a vehicle or while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic.  The statute defines “electronic message” as “a self-contained piece of digital communication that is designed or intended to be transmitted between physical devices.”  The law goes on to define “electronic message” as including, but not limited to, “e-mail, a text message, an instant message, a command or request to access a World Wide Web page, or other data that uses a commonly recognized electronic communications protocol.”  This definition covers virtually all text messaging, social network communications, and the viewing of any material on the internet.  However, an “electronic message” does not include “voice or other data transmitted as a result of making a phone call, or data transmitted automatically by a wireless communications device without direct initiation by a person.”

Exceptions

The use of a cellphone while driving is not prohibited in Minnesota in all circumstances.  The following are examples of the lawful use of a cellphone while driving on Minnesota roads:

  • A cellphone used in a voice-activated or other hands-free mode;
  • A cellphone used in making a cellular phone call;
  • A cellphone used in obtaining emergency assistance to report a traffic accident, medical emergency, or serious traffic hazard, or prevent a crime about to be committed;
  • A cellphone used in the reasonable belief that a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger; or
  • A cellphone used in an authorized emergency vehicle while in the performance of official duties.

As you can see, the laws in Minnesota allow for the use of a cellphone in a vehicle in various circumstances.  Because the law allows a person to use a cellphone to initiate and make a cellular phone call, it is difficult, at times, to ascertain whether a person pushing buttons on their phone is texting or calling.  Thus, enforcement of Minnesota’s texting laws can be tricky for law enforcement.  You can see here the creativity some police officers have resorted to.