Most everybody these days tells a disturbing story about distracted drivers drifting over centerlines, veering onto road shoulders and risking rear-end collisions as they toy with their phones.
The worst offenders let nothing interfere with their love affairs with electronic devices. Distracted driving accounts for 1 in 4 crashes and at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries a year in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Between 2011 and 2015, the agency says, 326 people died and 1,076 suffered life-altering injuries in crashes attributed to distracted driving.
Now, from Washington County, comes more glaring concern. A new survey shows that while residents feel relatively safe from violent crime and property crimes, they feel “least safe” from distracted drivers and their close cousins, drunken drivers. Washington County ranks better than three other Minnesota counties measured in the survey, but only at the midpoint of counties surveyed nationwide.
Dan Starry, chief deputy in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said a few seconds of distraction can be fatal. “It’s killing people, it’s killing our loved ones, our neighbors,” Starry said. “A lot of people think it’s teens causing it, but really it is a lot of age groups at fault.”
Distracted driving isn’t limited to phones, Starry said. Deputies find sleepy drivers and inattentive drivers who are eating and putting on makeup. Anybody observing distracted driving should report them at once, he said.
“Safety is paramount, and drivers have to realize distracted driving is very dangerous,” he said.
The good news is that surveyed residents think highly of the Sheriff’s Office and its 911 dispatch services, implying public trust in law enforcement authorities to confront distracted driving.
An overwhelming number of U.S. drivers know that texting while behind the wheel is illegal, and 78 percent say it’s a serious threat to public safety, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
More transit, please
Another major finding in the Washington County survey shows this: Residents want more public transportation. In fact, “availability” of bus and rail transit ranked near the “poor” end of the satisfaction scale and, when compared with other counties, even lower.
At recent County Board meetings, commissioners lamented a lack of action in the Minnesota Legislature to approve requests for transit funding.
Commissioner Karla Bigham, a champion of the Red Rock Corridor bus rapid transit route from St. Paul to Hastings, said she was “deflated and disappointed” at what she said was a lack of understanding of county and city needs. “It’s hard to plan long-term when it’s so unstable,” Bigham said of funding.
Bigham and another champion of transit, Commissioner Lisa Weik, spent hours lobbying at the State Capitol for Red Rock and the Gold Line, also known as the Gateway Corridor. That bus rapid transit line would run between St. Paul and the east side of Woodbury.
Overall, the citizen survey showed high satisfaction with living in Washington County. “Outdoor recreational opportunities” received high grades, as did “availability of bike and pedestrian transportation options.” The county has numerous paved trails, including the Gateway and Brown’s Creek state trails.