Police take new aim at texting, driving

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2014 - 9:36 AM

For one family, the loss of a 17-year-old daughter brought home the danger of distractions at the wheel.

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Authorities found drivers engaged in a stunning array of activities that diverted their attention from the highway.

More than 500 people were cited for texting while driving during a recent crackdown on distracted driving offenses, which cost nearly as many lives each year as drunken driving.

Officers from more than 400 departments also found kids not in safety seats, people not wearing seat belts and drivers engaged in a stunning array of activities that diverted their attention from the highway.

But those drivers were fortunate to escape with just a ticket.

Deej Logan lost her life in 2012 when the 17-year-old from Byron, Minn., didn’t see the stopped school bus ahead because she had picked up her phone to send a text. She never finished that text — or her senior year.

Today, her parents go to schools and churches to speak out against texting and driving, hoping that together with the state’s annual crackdown they can discourage drivers young and old from picking up the phone to send or read a text. The idea is to target texting and other forms of distracted driving in much the same way as earlier campaigns made drinking and driving unacceptable.

“I want to see lives saved,” said Logan’s father, Matt Logan.

Last year, distracted driving contributed to 17,598 crashes, 68 fatalities and 8,038 injuries, according to state reports. And in 2012, distracted driving in Minnesota was cited in fatal crashes nearly often as drunken driving. Distracted driving also caused more than four times the number of crashes with injuries than drunken driving. 

Burgers and makeup

Distractions include people eating burgers, applying makeup, shaving, reading newspapers, scrolling on computers and of course, texting, said Lt. Eric Roeske, spokesman for the Minnesota State Patrol. Troopers and officers have heard all the excuses: “ ‘My kids are trying to get a hold of me, my plans have changed and I have to look at my phone,’ ” he said.

People think they can multi-task while they drive, Roeske said.

But a quarter of all crashes — more than 86,000 — were attributed to distracted driving from 2009 to 2013, according to statistics from the Office of Traffic Safety at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

“Distracted driving has been a problem since the advent of the automobile,” Roeske said. But as the number of people who rely on cellphones and other devices grows, authorities here and across the country have targeted drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road.

“Anyone can see when you stop at a stop sign, light or in a traffic jams; the first thing you see is the driver pick up a phone and look at it,” Roeske said. “It’s tempting to look when that text message beeps or the phone rings. … It’s the most visible sign of distracted driving but it’s not the only one.”

Five seconds is the average time a person’s eyes are off the road while texting, according to Dawn Duffy, a spokeswoman the Minnesota Department of Safety. For a motorist traveling at 55 mph, that’s like covering the length of a football field blindfolded, she said.

But despite the inherent dangers and the fact that it’s illegal, more Minnesota drivers have been caught texting while driving every year since 2009, a year after the law was passed.

Under the no-texting law, it’s illegal for drivers to read, compose or send texts and e-mails as well as access the Internet on wireless devices while a vehicle is in motion or part of traffic, including when a motorist is at a stoplight, stop sign or stopped in traffic. It’s illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cellphone at any time.

“When texting started out, it was believed to be a young person’s activity,” Roeske said. “Now it’s mainstream, all generations, all ages.”

“If you’re not paying attention, then you’re putting yourself and others in danger,” Roeske said. “All it takes is a fraction of a second to put yourself in a situation where a tragedy occurs. The fact of the matter is we see people die from these distractions.”

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