Parents may love it, but their teen drivers might not be so thrilled.
Starting Sunday, Minnesota teens who hold an instructional permit or provisional license will be barred from talking on cell phones while driving.
Minnesota joins 10 other states with a law clamping down on cell phone use among novice drivers. Violators face a fine of up to $100 plus court costs and delays in upgrading their instructional or provisional permits to a full-fledged license.
"The goal is not to be punitive," said state Rep. Pete Nelson, R-Lindstrom, chief sponsor of the new law. "It's to promote safety behind the wheel."
The law affects roughly 400,000 drivers - nearly all of them teenagers - with learning permits or provisional licenses. It applies to hand-held and hands-free phones.
"I think it is a necessary regulation to help protect the lives of the motoring public, especially our young people," said Brainerd Police Chief John Bolduc. "No one should use a cell phone at all when driving. Too many people take driving for granted and try to do too many things when driving. It is the cause of many accidents."
In 1999 Minnesota enacted the Graduated Driver's License Law, creating three phases of licensing for drivers under 18. An instructional permit holder must be at least 15, have passed vision and written tests, completed 30 hours of classroom instruction and be enrolled in behind-the-wheel instruction and driving only under the supervision of a certified driving instructor, parent or guardian, or other licensed driver age 21 or older. A provisional license is granted to teens at least 16 years old who have held an instructional permit for six months with no convictions for moving violations or alcohol/controlled substance violations, have completed driver education and passed the road test. A full license is granted to drivers who have held a provisional license for at least a year with no convictions or are at least 18 years of age.
State traffic safety officials say young and inexperienced drivers are singled out by the law because they are more prone to accidents than older drivers. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in Minnesota and the nation.
Bolduc said the research leading to the new law was solid. He noted teenagers rate high in groups involved in accidents, and throwing in distractions such as cell phones only raises the rate.
In Brainerd, the new law will not be enforced as a primary offense, Bolduc said, but in connection with other traffic violations. He said he wouldn't be asking his officers to be guessing at a driver's ages while on patrol.
"But if we happen to pull over a teenager for speeding or something else and we see them using a cell phone they can expect to receive a ticket," Bolduc said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported recently that 32 16-year-olds died per 100,000 drivers in 2003, four times the fatality rate of the 30-to-59 age group.
Terri Tomlinson, Baxter, said she supports the new law. Her 15-year-old daughter, Cassie, who will get her driver's license in July, also thought it was a good idea.
"I think it's a good thing," said Cassie Tomlinson. "There's so much stuff going on around you. It's hard enough to concentrate."
"Some people will be OK with it," said Kirsti Helmberger, 15, Baxter. "Others would totally freak."
Helmberger said many of her friends and fellow sophomores at Brainerd High School have their own cell phones. Those teens who may have a problem with the new law are likely those who you'll find chatting away on their phones in the hallways between classes or text messaging their friends in class, she said. Helmberger said she doesn't use her cell phone when driving so the new law won't affect her.
"It's kind of fair," said Luke Lewandowski, 15, Brainerd. "We're just starting out. We don't have much experience."
Jane Brink, Baxter, thought it was already a law. She said her 15-year-old daughter, Emily, who has an instructional permit, isn't allowed to use her cell phone or listen to the radio when driving.
"If she gets a call, I talk to her friends when she's driving," Brink said with a laugh. "I know it's tempting, because I'm on the cell phone sometimes and my daughter reminds me it's not safe."
"I think it's unfair because I see adults using it all the time and making just as many mistakes as we do," said Jane's daughter, Emily, who turns 16 in March.
"I think if they have a law it should be for everybody," said 16-year-old Lucy Sweeney, Brainerd. Sweeney has had her driver's license for four months. "It's targeting the teen population again."
Sweeney said most teens are better at using cell phones than adults and should be allowed to use their cell phones while driving if adults are allowed to do so. She admitted that she does chat on her cell phone while driving at times.
"My parents don't know that I do, but I do," said Sweeney.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the other states with restrictions on wireless communications while driving are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee and Texas.
(This story includes information from The Associated Press.)
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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