hands free_at capitolIMG_3586.jpg

Photo by Jeff Hage

Amy LaVallee, the mother of Monticello High School graduate Phillip LaVallee, stood alongside Rhonda Maurer, who was at the Capitol with others to remember Chuck Maurer, his niece and many other casualties of distracted driving.

Eleven hours after Minnesota’s law on distracted driving changed on Thursday, Aug. 1, Greg Tikalsky stood inside the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol pleading with Minnesota drivers to put down their cellphones.

Tikalsky’s father Joe was retrieving his morning newspaper on the road outside his New Prague home in late October 2015 when he was struck and killed by a distracted driver.

“We never thought this could happen to our family,” Tikalsky said during a press conference ushering in the new law.

For years, the family of Monticello High School graduate Phillip LaVallee has shared the same sentiment.

LaVallee, a standout student athlete at Monticello High School and South Dakota State University, was struck and killed by a distracted driver while running on a road near his Otsego home.

“Today is a bittersweet day,” said Phillip’s mother, Amy LaVallee.

For LaVallee and her family, Aug. 1 was an uplifting day because the years of lobbying before state lawmakers finally paid off with the enactment of the hands-free driving law.

But there was a sense of sorrow too.

“We’re one week away from the sixth anniversary of Phillip’s death on August 8,” LaVallee explained.

Amy LaVallee said that she, her husband Greg, and members of the LaVallee family agree that Minnesota’s hands-free law “is a great step in the right direction.”

“We encourage everyone to put down their phones and drive,” she said. “It’s too late to help my son, but they can save the life of someone else,” LaVallee said of Minnesota drivers.

LaVallee said she was encouraged by the new law as she drove from her Otsego home to the State Capitol in St. Paul mid-morning on Aug. 1.

“I was surprised that I did not see one single person on the phone,” she said.

“It’s good to know our work has paid off,” she said, noting that families not unlike her own have lobbied for a change in Minnesota’s laws on behalf of their loved ones killed by distracted drivers.

“We worked with a great group of people who worked so hard to make this happen,” she said.

About two years after the death of Phillip LaVallee, on July 21, 2015, 54-year-old Chuck Maurer and his 10-year-old daughter Cassy were returning home to Becker from the Monticello Public Library when their vehicle was struck by a distracted driver at the intersection of Highway 10 and Sherburne County Road 11. Chuck died that evening. Cassy died about a week later.

Since the fatal crash, Chuck Maurer’s niece Rhonda Maurer, of Sauk Rapids, has been one of those people working with the LaVallee family to make a positive change to Minnesota’s distracted driving laws.

Rhonda Maurer, who was also at the State Capitol to help usher in the hands-free law, also used the word “bittersweet” to describe the long-awaited day that the hands-free bill became law.

“Today is a bittersweet day because we don’t have Chuck or Cassy,” Rhonda Maurer said.

But through the relentless work of victims’ families, lives will be saved, she said.

“I hope our loss is someone else’s gain,” Maurer said.

Under the hands-free driving law, drivers who hold their phone behind the wheel or otherwise swipe, type, scroll or view content on their cellphones will be subject to tickets and fines. The first offense is a $50 ticket plus court fees. Subsequent fines are $275.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, one of the lead authors on the bill in the Minnesota House, lauded the state Legislature’s passing of the bill and the subsequent signing of the bill into law by Gov. Tim Walz.

However, on the day that the law went into effect, Hornstein suggested that Minnesota’s roads need to be even safer.

“We celebrate today and go back to work on traffic safety tomorrow,” Hornstein said.

Earlier during the press conference, John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, offered a strong message on the morning the hands-free driving law went into effect.

“The law sends a very simple message. Hands-free means hands-free,” Harrington said.

“That means Minnesotans have decided we will not tolerate the behavior of drivers who decide that interacting with a tablet or a phone or a game or whatever device in their hand is more important than the lives of their fellow Minnesotans,” he said.

As the State Capitol press conference came to a close, Greg Tikalsky noted how he hopes the hands-free driving law will make roads safer.

“I look forward to the day when driving with a phone in your hand will have the same stigma as driving with a beer in your hand,” Tikalsky said.

Load comments