The tragic death June 30 of a mother bicycling with her two young children in Rock County is a horrifying reminder that distracted driving is a growing problem in this state. According to the criminal complaint, the driver admitted to having taken his eyes off the road to check his cellphone when he hit the bicycle and bike stroller.

Driver inattention is a leading contributing factor in fatal crashes. Cellphones and other electronic devices are common in our lives today. But using them while driving is unsafe and irresponsible, and can be deadly.

The Department of Public Safety reports that one in four crashes is related to distracted driving, and such crashes are likely underreported. Distracted driving was a contributing factor in 175 fatal crashes from 2011 to 2013 in Minnesota, resulting in 191 deaths. More than half of those crashes occurred in rural areas. Those fatalities cost the state more than $269 million.

In Minnesota, it’s illegal to text while driving and to access the Web while in motion or part of traffic, including at a stop light or stop sign. It’s also illegal for drivers younger than 18 to use a cellphone while driving. Citations for these offenses increased from 388 in 2008 to 2,189 in 2013. That reflects an alarming trend that must be reversed.

If you text while driving, on average you take your eyes off the road for up to 4.6 seconds out of every six seconds. That’s like traveling the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour without looking up, according to DPS. Using a cellphone while driving, whether hands-free or hand-held, delays a driver’s reactions as much as an alcohol-concentration level of .08 percent.

Safety campaigns by DPS and the Minnesota Department of Transportation remind drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians that we all have the same rights and responsibilities and that we all need to “share the road.”

DPS, MnDOT and the Department of Health lead Minnesota’s Toward Zero Deaths program to reduce traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. Its mission is to create a culture for which traffic fatalities of all kinds are unacceptable. Distracted driving is unacceptable.

The popularity of mobile devices and services, and the dangerous and deadly consequences of their use while driving, require each of us to make some personal decisions, whether we are driving, bicycling or even walking. Our personal decisions can save lives. It’s time for us to take that next step.

• We should turn off cellphones or place them out of reach to avoid the urge to answer.

• We should pledge to never text and drive.

• We should plan our trips in advance to avoid fiddling with a GPS device or application while driving.

• We should pull over to a safe location if we must look at a map.

• We should designate a passenger to help with directions or with the use of devices such as a GPS.

• We should speak up, if we’re a passenger, to stop drivers from distracted driving behavior.

Distracted driving goes beyond just mobile devices. Anytime we take our eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and our minds off our driving, we’re putting lives at risk. Children should be taught the importance of good behavior in a vehicle. Drivers who have to tend to children are distracted drivers. So are drivers who are eating, drinking or grooming.

Let’s all heed the lessons that too many Minnesotans learn the hard way. Let’s pay more attention to our driving, biking and walking.


Charlie Zelle is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Mona Dohman is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Edward Ehlinger is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.