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Students at Roseville Area High School, including Austin Colvard, received some lessons on Wednesday about the dangers of distracted driving.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii , Star Tribune

This poster by the state Department of Public Safety was created to warn students of the consequences of texting while driving.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Roseville student Lindsay Feero checked her iPhone on the way to class. Monday’s announcement was made at her school.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Pay attention at the wheel or pay up

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • April 16, 2012 - 10:41 PM

After watching citations for texting and driving increase exponentially, more than 400 law enforcement agencies plan to flood state highways on Thursday to crack down on distracted drivers.

The state says that driver distraction contributes to about one-quarter of vehicle crashes annually in Minnesota, resulting in 208 deaths and nearly 26,000 injuries from 2008 through 2010.

A $50,000 federal grant for law enforcement overtime on Thursday is the impetus behind the enforcement and education effort.

The message is simple: "We need to stay focused on the task of driving," Donna Berger, the state Department of Public Safety's director of traffic safety, said when the department announced the plan on Monday.

"While driving may seem like a routine activity for many of us, the road environment changes constantly and demands focus at all times. We can't use our daily commutes to conduct other business ... "

Nationally, the situation is compounded: 5,474 people were killed in 2009 crashes involving driver distraction and an estimated 448,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"I wasn't paying attention" is the main explanation when a driver is stopped after a crash or a violation, Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske said.

In Minnesota, it is illegal for drivers to read, compose or send texts/e-mails and access the web on a wireless device while the vehicle is in motion or even at a stoplight or stuck in traffic. It is also illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cellphone at any time.

Despite everything from laws banning the practice to pop-culture pressure from Oprah Winfrey to hang up and drive, the proliferation of calls and text messaging in cars continues, public safety officials say.

Teen drivers are more likely than other age groups to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported, according to the NHTSA. In 2009, 16 percent of teen drivers involved in a fatal crash were reported to have been distracted.

That's part of the reason Monday's announcement was at Roseville Area High School, where officials were joined by members of the student group Raiders Against Distracted Driving.

Student Samantha Nielsen said she was running in New York's Central Park and crossing a roadway when a driver rear-ended a car that had stopped for her and pushed the car into the crosswalk. Nielsen said, "I could have been hit."

Nikko Aries told of losing a friend in a crash. A St. Paul woman admitted in December that she had just hung up her cellphone when she hit and killed 24-year-old Emma Holman on St. Paul's Grand Avenue in November 2010.

And more recently, a cellphone is alleged to have played a role in the high-profile case against Amy Senser, wife of former Viking Joe Senser. Hennepin County prosecutors said last week that she was talking on her phone when she struck and killed 38-year-old Anousone Phanthavong in Minneapolis.

Berger said, however, that distraction extends beyond cellphone conversations and texting. Rowdy passengers, fiddling with music, eating and primping also come into play. She encouraged those who aren't driving to tell drivers to focus on the road or even take over behind the wheel.

Those who aren't in the car can help too. When you call someone, ask if they're driving and say, "My call can wait. It's not worth it. Wait until you get to your destination," Berger said.

A ticket for driving without due care varies throughout the state, but Roeske said the price is about $100 to $125. He said law enforcement officers usually nab drivers when they commit other infractions such as changing lanes without signaling or speeding, but he added: "Our goal is not to write tickets ... Our goal is for voluntary compliance."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035

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