Andrew Dudley died just weeks before his high school graduation.

A driver, talking on her phone, struck and killed him as he biked home from a church youth group in St. Louis Park.

“Go home and hug your kids and grandkids and tell them how much you love them, because I can’t do that with my Andrew,” his father, John Dudley, said.

Seven years after his son’s death, Dudley is among the Minnesotans and lawmakers pushing to make drivers put down their phones or face increasingly tough penalties. The effort, which has quickly gained traction early in the legislative session, comes as the state has amped up its efforts to track distracted driving and its role in crashes.

“This is a growing problem,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, the chief author of a measure that would boost penalties for distracted driving. “It’s time to get some teeth in the law and as a state say it’s time to put down the phone.”

A Star Tribune analysis of the latest Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) crash data shows that a cellphone or electronic device was a factor in 20 percent of the distracted driving cases where someone was seriously injured or killed. The data from 2016 and 2017 also show there are myriad other distractions stealing drivers’ attention, including eating, grooming, and even daydreaming.

That illustrates the challenge for those trying to combat the problem — or even study it.

The statistics don’t always paint the true picture, said Mike Hanson, director of the DPS’ Office of Traffic Safety. Unless police get a confession from a driver involved in a crash or a statement from a witness, it’s often difficult for law enforcement to prove whether phone use played a role, he said.

“Distracted driving is a very nebulous thing to try and identify,” he said.

Traffic safety advocates agree that changing the culture around cellphone use while driving is important. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have hands-free laws, and most reported a drop in fatalities within two years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We know that hand-held bans have drivers putting down the phones,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But the laws didn’t always reduce crashes caused by distracted drivers. Those crashes went up in some states with the law and down in others.

“We haven’t seen a consistent effect on crashes,” she said.

‘Inattention blindness’

Taking phones out of drivers’ hands could cut the time drivers take their eyes off the road to manipulate their phones.

But hands-free phone conversations are not risk-free because people are still dividing their attention. People deceive themselves into believing they can multi-task, said David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist and national expert on distracted driving.

“We think we’re better than everyone else,” he said. “Our brains don’t do it well.”

Even when using a phone hands free, drivers tend to stare straight ahead, he said, and drive “like a zombie.”

A distracted driver can be staring straight ahead at a red light and not see it.

“You miss things,” Strayer said. “You have inattention blindness.”

But some researchers aren’t betting that drivers will disconnect from their phones when they get behind the wheel. Electronic devices entice people to use them.

They’ve become a compulsion, said Scott Campbell, a University of Michigan professor who studies mobile communication behaviors and consequences.

“Without even thinking, we’re ready for that thing to beckon us,” he said.

And letting go is hard.

A recent study by the Institute for Highway Safety found that only one in five owners of an iPhone 6 or newer phone have Apple’s “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature set to automatically turn on when they drive or connect to a car’s Bluetooth system. (The feature mutes incoming calls and notifications and sends auto replies to text messages.)

Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of hand-held bans, David Kidd, senior research scientist at the Highway Loss Data Institute, said such laws can change culture.

“It can provide a guiding principle of what things people should and shouldn’t do and make it easier for law enforcement to enforce,” he said.

Enforcement challenges

Minnesota law already prohibits drivers under 18 from using a cellphone, either hand-held or hands-free, except to call 911.

It also prohibits all drivers from texting or accessing the internet, including when they are stopped at a stop sign or traffic light.

Yet the number of people cited for texting keeps climbing, and officers have added extra time to special enforcement efforts.

Last year, law enforcement in Minnesota cited more than 9,500 drivers for illegally texting while behind the wheel, a 30 percent jump from 2017, according to a DPS analysis of court records.

“The cellphone is a huge distraction, and it’s getting worse,” said State Trooper Melissa Fischer. “Drivers are more secretive about how they use their electronics.”

For instance, it’s often difficult to prove someone was texting as opposed to dialing a phone number, which is legal.

The state changed its crash reporting form in 2016 in an attempt to learn more about distractions. The new form offers a list of distracted behaviors for law enforcement to pick from when filing a report, but even doing that can be difficult if the facts are unclear. It often comes down to information collected roadside and is only as credible as the driver or witness, Fischer said.

A law banning handheld phones would make it easier, from an enforcement perspective.

“It’s clear when someone is holding a phone,” said Kidd, of the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Push to put phones down

The measures being considered by the Legislature would make Minnesota the next state to ban drivers from using hand-held phones and electronic devices, with an exception to touch the device once to answer a call, start a podcast or activate a navigation app.

Violators would face higher fines — $150 for an initial offense, then $250 for a second and $500 for a third — and possible seizure of their device.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, lead author of the Senate bill, said phone use is the most egregious form of distracted driving.

“I see this law as a proactive way … to get people to put their phones down,” he said.

Officials acknowledge new laws won’t eliminate distracted driving, which AAA says is “a bigger threat on America’s roadways than any other issue.”

But they are a starting point for getting drivers to focus their attention on the road, said Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol.

For family members who have lost loved ones in distracted driving crashes, any law will be a welcome change.

“I don’t think there is any Minnesotan who has not been impacted either in their home or their hearts by this,” said Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea. “This is something we need to do. It is the right thing to do.”

 

Star Tribune data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.