With a cellphone in his hand, Michael Price punched in GPS coordinates while sitting at a traffic light in Minnetonka on Wednesday, unaware that the eyes of the law were watching from the car right beside.
“I should not be doing it,” said an apologetic Price, 25, after being stopped and given a warning by Sgt. Rick Dennison of West Hennepin Public Safety. “It’s easy to do. Hard not to.”
Starting Monday and running through April 30, police across the state will be extra vigilant in watching for motorists like Price who succumb to the temptation to illegally use their phones to text, read or send e-mail, or to access the internet while in traffic — including while sitting at a stoplight. The three-week enforcement period will be the longest put on by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) since the annual April crackdowns on distracted driving began in 2010.
April has been designated as Distracted Driving Awareness Month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The number of motorists who have been ticketed throughout the year for texting and driving has risen from 2,177 to 9,545 over the past six years. Distracted driving also has been a contributing factor to 45 deaths annually and 204 life-changing injuries over the same period, according to the DPS. Those numbers prompted traffic safety officials to lengthen this year’s enforcement. Last year’s campaign ran for two weeks.
“It’s an epidemic,” said Mike Hanson, who heads the DPS Office of Traffic Safety. “Drive time is not catch-up time. It’s time to pay attention.”
With $438,000 from the Federal Highway Administration to cover officers’ overtime, law enforcement from 300 agencies will center their attention on looking for motorists who are not focused on driving. On April 11, police will saturate crash-prone Hwy. 12 from Minneapolis to the South Dakota border as part of the crackdown.
While cellphones most often are what hijack a driver’s attention, distracting behaviors can include everything from brushing teeth to reading the newspaper and even reaching for a coffee mug, activities that are legal but can lead to trouble.
“Your brain has disengaged from paying attention to what is on the roads,” Hanson said. “Nobody sets out to be distracted, but good intentions don’t save us. Good choices do.”
The fine for distracted driving is $50 plus court fees for a first offense and $275 for a subsequent offense. On Thursday, the Senate will resume discussion on a bill that would increase initial fines to $150, rising to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. The bill also would allow the state to confiscate a driver’s phone after several offenses and require distracted driving education to be included as part of driver’s education courses. Drivers who text while behind the wheel and cause a crash leading to injury or death could be subject to penalties on par with those caught driving drunk, under provisions of the bill.
Distracted driving “is more than a menace on the roads,” said the bill’s chief author, Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound. “This is a serous danger.”
Another bill that would ban drivers from using handheld phones and electronic devices has passed through Senate and House committees, but the chamber must work out differences in the language and contents before it moves ahead. Gov. Tim Walz has said he’d sign the bill.
As part of the enforcement campaign, authorities are putting responsibility on passengers to speak up when those behind the wheel engage in unsafe behaviors.
“We need friends who don’t let friends text and drive,” said Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield.
As for Price, a recent transplant from Colorado, he realized he was distracted after he was stopped and admitted that programming his GPS while on the ramp from Interstate 394 to Ridgedale Drive was not such a safe thing to do.
“I was trying to find my way into Target,” he said. “I could have just looked up.”