Erik Fryklund, alone at a table in a windowless conference room, watched a 15-minute online video on the dangers of distracted driving Friday. Then the 28-year-old Cargill employee signed a commitment pledging to drive safe, both when on and off the clock. He had to. It’s now required as part of his job.
With the latest research showing motorists are distracted half the time they’re behind the wheel, traffic safety officials are turning to employers such as Cargill in their fight against the epidemic that now is responsible for one in every four crashes.
Traffic deaths were up 13 percent last year from 2014, according to preliminary reports from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS), and 2016 is starting off even worse. As of Friday, 84 people had died on Minnesota roads this year, up 25 percent from this same time last year.
A lot of that has to do with people multi-tasking while driving, said Donna Berger, director of the department’s Office of Traffic Safety.
“It’s becoming all too common because of a selfish choice to put the phone ahead of the Number 1 task of focusing and pay attention behind the wheel,” she said. “Troopers will be working overtime for stopping texting while driving before it turns deadly. Minnesotans are frustrated and so are we.”
Starting Monday, law enforcement from 300 agencies across the state will begin a weeklong education and enforcement campaign to stop motorists from texting or interacting with electronic devices while driving.
In a similar campaign last year, authorities cited 909 drivers in Minnesota for texting and driving, a 65 percent increase over the previous year.
But that represents only a tiny fraction of drivers who engage in the dangerous activity while at the wheel. The US. Department of Transportation estimates that at any given moment in 2014, during daylight hours, more than 587,000 vehicles were being driven by someone using a hand-held cellphone.
“We can’t enforce our way out of this epidemic,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol. “Corporations and companies and citizens have to come together and say enough is enough.”
DPS has teamed up with more than 30 Minnesota businesses — from Fortune 500 companies to tiny operations — with the goal of changing the driving culture when it comes to using the phone while on the road.
Major employers such as General Mills, Ecolab and CHS ban employees from using mobile phones and texting while driving company-owned vehicles and have comprehensive safety programs to promote safe driving. They’re using e-mail blasts, articles in company newsletters and videos and articles on internal websites.
At Cargill, where safety messages come in the form of posters in parking ramps and lots that carry messages such as “Hang Up, We Want to See You Again Tomorrow,” employees are required to complete e-learning courses and sign a commitment pledging safe driving. That means no use of cellphones while driving on campus, no texting while driving anywhere while on company business, even in personal vehicles, and 13 other behaviors deemed detrimental to driving safety. Violations bring consequences.
“It’s expected behavior” while on the clock, and the hope is that it continues when employees are on their own time, said Melanie Burke, Cargill’s director of health and safety. “It’s a goal to make it part of the culture.”
Fryklund said Cargill’s safe driving push has led to a behavior change. Fryklund, who works in the company’s animal nutrition division, said he always wears his seat belt and now tucks his cellphone in the seat behind him so he can’t get to it when it vibrates.
“When in college, I was texting while driving, speeding,” he admitted. “[Now] I’m a defensive driver. You see people around you not paying attention. Being a defensive driver, I would have never known what that was before coming here.”
At Inver Grove Heights-based CHS, employees attend mandatory driving safety workshops. At St. Paul-based Ecolab, the company sends messages about driving safety through its internal intranet and other corporate channels, said spokesman Roman Blahoski.
“The hope is that what happens during the workday would impact employee’s actions when off the clock,” he said.
Employers taking a stand against distracted driving is critical in changing the driving culture, said Lisa Kons, traffic safety education coordinator for the Minnesota Safety Council.
“We can’t ignore the evidence that distraction, whether it’s visual, manual or mental, significantly impairs our driving ability,” she said. “Distracted driving is a big contributor to the current outbreak of traffic deaths in Minnesota.”
At least once a week and sometimes even more, police have to knock on a family’s door and tell somebody that a loved one won’t be coming home because they were killed in a crash involving a distracted driver, Nielson said.
That scenario played out 74 times last year in Minnesota in places such as New Prague, where a beloved school bus driver was killed by a driver responding to a text message and in Becker, where a father and daughter were killed by a motorist who ran a red light while sending Facebook messages.
From 2010 to 2014, 328 people lost their lives and 1,138 people suffered life-changing injuries in distracted driving-related crashes in Minnesota, the DPS said.
Nationwide, 3,179 people were killed and an additional 431,000 were injured last year in collisions involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Still, some safety advocates consider the penalty for distracted driving to be paltry: a $50 fine plus court fees for the first offense. For second and subsequent offenses, the fine is $225 plus court fees.
“Lives are at stake on our highways,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “People need to understand the potential price of distracted driving. The cost of a ticket is nothing, compared to the irrevocable cost of taking someone’s life.”