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La Crescent PD sees you on your phone, but still giving drivers leeway, a year into cellphone-driving law — masks too

Rick Solem

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FILE - Driver eating, texting and driving would be deemed illegal in Minnesota, after a law passed Aug. 1, 2019 banned cellphones in hand while driving. (PHOTO: Not someone driving).

You’ve likely done it before. Heck, you could be doing it right now, though reading this while driving is a bit ridiculous and kind of ironic.

But, when’s the last time this happened? You were on your phone, driving along, when you looked up and noticed a squad car. Then, looking forward as stone faced as possible, you let go of your phone, trying not to make sudden arm movements.

While it’s been just over a week where Minnesotans have tried to get used to wearing a mask in public places, it’s been just over a year where they’ve adjusted to the state law making it illegal to have a cellphone in hand while driving.

La Crescent Police Chief Doug Stavenau said his department doesn’t have a whiteboard in the office with tallies as to how many drivers they caught on their phones a day, but he’s seen that head freeze plenty of times.

“Honestly,” Stavenau said, “those are the ones that we do more of the educational approach on the traffic stop, going, ‘Hey we noticed that you were on the phone and it looks like you made contact to recognize that I had been sitting there in a marked squad car. I think you’re aware of the law, because you put the phone down. We just would like you to do that when you don’t see the squad car.’”

Stavenau, the chief in La Crescent for six years, really sees drivers come around to obeying the cellphone law, when he literally sees drivers on their cellphones.

“Compliance is pretty good when a marked squad car is visible and, once again, when I’m sitting in my personal vehicle, I think the compliance numbers drop significantly,” he said.

Unfortunately, no follow up was asked of Stavenau why the numbers drop when he’s in his personal vehicle, as well, but it’s probably because he’s got “POLICE CHIEF” written on the side of his F-150, right?

In all seriousness, though, Stavenau said his department is taking an educational approach to both laws — in other words you’d really have to be making a scene while not wearing a mask in a public building to get a ticket, and you’d have to be driving pretty terribly while on your phone to get that ticket.

“We’ve written quite a few tickets for the violation,” Stavenau said of the cellphone law. “They’re usually connected to either a property damage crash … or just an egregious, obviously distracted moment (with) that phone in their hand and we seen the traffic violation occur in front of us.”

Stavenau said they’ve written about 40 tickets since the cellphone-driving law passed Aug. 1, 2019, and given out about 75 warnings. No mask tickets, and don’t expect any.

He added that not wearing a mask in public buildings is a $125 ticket — a “civil violation” — while the cellphone-driving ticket is also $125, but a moving violation that will go on your record for 3-5 years and could affect your insurance.

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM and "liberal hack" | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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