A new hard-hitting campaign from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a 10-day distracted driving enforcement and education effort by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is trying to reach drivers who let cellphones and other activities divert their attention from the road.

Law enforcement knows they are facing a difficult challenge.

By some estimates, more than 70 percent of young people say they have sent text messages while driving and nearly 80 percent say they have read a text while behind the wheel. Parents are just as guilty, said Donna Berger of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety. “They are texting back and forth with their kids.”

The ubiquitous practice of cellphone use along with behaviors such as eating, grooming, smoking and refereeing children in the back seat have become such a major problem that April has been designated Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

U Drive. U Text. U Pay.

NHTSA is spending $8.5 million on the first national effort to combat distracted driving. The U Drive. U Text. U Pay campaign includes police crackdowns and public service announcements on TV, radio and digital platforms.

One of the most dramatic messages is a 30-second video that shows a young driver so absorbed in reading a text message that she runs a stop sign and is broadsided by a large truck. The driver and two innocent passengers are tossed about inside the car, which comes to rest after rolling several times. The driver’s cellphone is recovered in the midst of the wreckage. The video ends with a police officer saying, “Nobody likes to be stopped by the police, but if I had seen her texting and driving and given her a ticket, it might have saved her life.”

“This campaign puts distracted driving on par with our efforts to fight drunken driving or to encourage seat belt use,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Locally, officers from 400 agencies in Minnesota will be on the watch for motorists who are texting or engaging in other behaviors that take their focus off the road. Those who get caught, like the driver who used his laptop Friday on Hwy. 55 at Penn Avenue, will be ticketed. But more importantly, police hope they get the message across on how dangerous and deadly driving can be when one’s full attention isn’t on the road.

Distracted driving by the numbers

Last year in Minnesota, 68 people died and another 8,038 were injured in the 18,000 crashes attributed to inattentive drivers. Those numbers balloon to 3,328 deaths and more than 421,00 injuries nationwide.

Arming motorists with facts and disturbing images might not change the attitudes of many current drivers who see phone use and messaging as a normal part of their driving routine, so Major Darrell Huggett of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office hopes reaching those not yet old enough to get a license will. Deputies bringing the “Enjoy the Ride, Don’t Text and Drive” to preschools and elementary schools are telling kids to “say something” when they are with drivers who are texting and volunteer to be the designated texter. “We need help,” Huggett said. “Law enforcement alone can’t eliminate the problem.”

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