The number of people caught driving while using their cellphones is on the rise in Minnesota, even as other bad behavior by motorists, such as speeding and drunken driving, is going down or holding steady.
Last year, the number of texting and driving citations was up 23 percent over 2016, according to state numbers. The increase is "ringing our alarm bell right now," said Mike Hanson, who heads the Office of Traffic Safety with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
"Texting is continuing to be a critical, almost epidemic, issue on Minnesota roads," Hanson said Friday. "It's the one area we're not making significant progress in. … In fact, it's going in the wrong direction."
The 7,357 drivers cited for texting and driving last year is far less than the 211,603 drivers cited for speeding or the 25,000 typically arrested each year for drunk or impaired driving. But statistics show that speeding and impaired driving are on a downward trend, while distracted driving is going up, Hanson said.
A decade earlier, the number of impaired drivers arrested each year was "pushing 40,000," he said.
"There is a cultural change taking place on Minnesota roads when it comes to impaired driving," Hanson said. "We have to make that same cultural shift to our addiction with our electronic devices."
The number of texting and driving citations might be up in part because law enforcement is better at detecting those violations. Still, spotting and proving distracted driving are more difficult than catching a speeder with radar. That means the increase in distracted driving is probably far more than the statistics show.
"I've yet to see a day during my commute, morning and afternoon, when I don't see multiple violations of people texting, checking Facebook, Snapchatting and doing all kinds of things on that cellphone when they really need to be paying attention to what's going on around them," Hanson said. "They're being very selfish. They're putting their need to be connected above the safety and well-being of everybody else."
What the numbers show
Distracted driving is responsible for one in four crashes on Minnesota roads, according to public safety officials. From 2012 to 2016, it contributed, on average, to 59 deaths and 223 serious injuries annually in the state.
In comparison, speeding contributed to an average of 82 deaths and 249 serious injuries each during that same period. Not buckling up contributed to an average of 97 deaths and 209 serious injuries each year from 2012 to 2016. Impaired driving killed 73 people in 2016.
Those four road behaviors — distracted driving, speeding, not using seat belts and impaired driving — contribute to 80 percent of the fatal and serious injury crashes on Minnesota roads, Hanson said.
The difference is seat belt violations have dropped dramatically over those years. "We're making incremental progress with drinking and speeding although we still have a long ways to go," he said. "But we're going backward in the distracted driving area."
Last week, he and several state legislators spoke in favor of a proposal that would prohibit motorists from using hand-held cellphones. It could jump-start a culture change with distracted driving, Hanson said.
The House and Senate bills would not prevent drivers from talking on cellphones, but it would forbid driving while holding them or other electronic devices.
Lawmakers have proposed similar legislation over the past four years but failed to get it out of committee.