Driving with Smartphones: Limits and Consequences

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12th Jan 2017

Driving with Smartphones: Limits and Consequences


According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, at least one in four automobile accidents is due to distracted driving.  Recent research published by AT&T shows that 7-in-10 people engage in smartphone activities while driving. The same study revealed that 61% of participants admitted to sending or reading texts while driving and 33% admitted to sending or reading emails.


Distracted driving has become more and more prevalent in recent years and accidents caused by distracted driving are on the rise. In response, lawmakers have sought to curb distracted driving and its consequences. As a result, the law contemplates both criminal and civil repercussions of distracted driving.


Criminal Consequences:

A distracted driver can face charges ranging from a petty traffic citation all the way to a felony depending on the driving conduct and its consequences.


The law in Minnesota makes clear that it is illegal for any driver to “operate a motor vehicle while using a wireless communications device to compose, read, or send an electronic message, when the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic.” The law defines “electronic message” as:


a self-contained piece of digital communication that is designed or intended to be transmitted between physical devices. An electronic message includes, but is 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. 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.


The above definition serves to broaden the scope of the rule. Notably, the reference to “other data” has been used to cover phone apps. As a result, drivers cannot use their phone while driving to text, email, access the Internet, or use apps that use data.


The legislature has recognized a few exceptions to the rule. Drivers are allowed to use the devise:

  1. solely in a voice-activated or other hands-free mode;
  2. for making a cellular phone call;
  3. for obtaining emergency assistance to report a traffic accident, medical emergency, or serious traffic hazard, or (ii) prevent a crime about to be committed;
  4. in the reasonable belief that a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger; or
  5. in an authorized emergency vehicle while in the performance of official duties.


No driver under the age of 18 may use a cell phone while driving a vehicle for any reason.


There is not a general ban on cell phone use while operating a vehicle; instead, the law allows most individuals to use a cell phone while driving. However, it is the type of use and how it impacts your ability to drive that may trigger a criminal charge. Unlawful use of the phone in itself generally amounts to a petty misdemeanor. If the distracted driving results in poor driving conduct, the driver could be cited with careless or reckless driving at the misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor level. If the driving conduct is grossly negligent and causes great or substantial harm to another, the driver could face felony charges.


If you are facing a criminal charge that alleges distracted driving due to phone use, the prosecution will have to prove that you were illegally using your phone. To prove illegal use, the prosecution will frequently rely on eyewitness testimony from the police officer, an admission from the driver, the seizure of the phone, or public information gleaned from social media sites (for example, a tweet or Facebook post at the same time as the accident).


Civil Consequences:

One the civil side, in addition to no-fault/personal injury protection benefits, accident victims may be able to bring a negligence claim against the at fault driver. Such a negligence claim would seek compensatory damages, which may include past and future medical expenses, wage loss, and pain and suffering.


The attorneys at Anderson Larson can help you understand and negotiate both the criminal and civil parameters of your case.