Beginning on August 1, 2019, Minnesota will join many other states and begin enforcement of a new law that requires hands free operation of a mobile device while driving a motor vehicle. The law recognizes the public safety issue and the fact that technology has eliminated the need to physically hold a cell phone in order to operate it while driving.
What does this have to do with employers?
Although this law is primarily aimed at creating a safer driving environment for the general public, it has a direct impact on employers with employees whose job functions require the use of a motor vehicle, or who allow employees to operate a motor vehicle as part of the services provided to customers and vendors. As result, employers may find themselves in the unfortunate position of defending against a lawsuit related to an accident involving an employee’s failure to comply with the new law. Employers who know, or reasonably should know, their employees are disobeying the law, and fail to take steps to ensure compliance, will be subject to greater exposure, including the possibility of punitive damages should they find themselves in litigation. Therefore, we recommend that employers take the time to understand the law and incorporate best practices and policies to limit exposure to such suits.
What does the law require?
Although the new law does not prohibit a driver from using a cell phone or to make calls, text, listen to music, or obtain directions, drivers may only engage in such activities through the use of voice commands or by single-touch activation without physically holding the phone in their hand. In other words, drivers may not hold a cell phone, or other wireless device, in their hand at any time while operating a motor vehicle. This includes when the vehicle remains in traffic but happens to be stopped, such at a red light or in a traffic jam. In order to ensure compliance, any cell phone or wireless device must be securely situated to remain hands-free and must not block the driver’s vision in any way.
However, there are a few exceptions. For example, drivers can hold a cell phone if absolutely necessary to obtain emergency assistance; if there is an immediate threat to life and safety; or when in an authorized emergency vehicle while performing official duties. Further, use of GPS and other apps that can only be used for navigation do not violate the law, and built-in touch screens and systems in vehicles are also exempt.
What about using the phone for other activities?
The new law recognizes that cell phones are more than simple communication devices, and actually act as mini-computers with apps for games, social media, and the like. Accordingly, it is a violation of the law for a driver, while operating a motor vehicle, to use a cell phone for video calling, video live-streaming, social media, gaming, looking at videos or photos stored on the phone, using non-navigation apps, reading texts, and scrolling or typing on the phone.
What action can employers take?
Employers are encouraged to take reasonable steps to engage employees to ensure compliance. Some initial steps employers should take include:
- Reviewing existing policies or creating a new policy specific to the use of phones or other devices for employees that drive as part of their job duties
- Create a mechanism to ensure that the new policy is appropriately communicated to all employees in the workplace
- Determine if training is necessary to understand the law, the new policy, and any specific devices that the company may want to use to ensure compliance
- Inform employees of the consequences for failing to adhere to the policy so that any exposure to the company can be minimized should a violation occur
For more information about the new hands free driving law, and for assistance in reviewing, creating, or implementing policies and best practices for compliance, contact the Employment Law Group at Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A by phone at (320) 251-1414 or by email at [email protected].
Established more than 100 years ago, Quinlivan & Hughes ranks among the oldest and largest law practices in Central Minnesota. The full-service law firm has growing legal teams in the areas of employment law, business law, government law, insurance defense, trust and estate planning, and general litigation. Learn more at Quinlivan.com.