Teens reading text messages sent by their parents, motorists shopping for cars and drivers making picks for their fantasy sports teams while behind the wheel. They are among behaviors law enforcement witnessed as they cited more than 1,000 motorists for texting and illegally using their phones while driving during a two-week distracted driving crackdown in April.
The 1,017 tickets issued during the campaign from April 10 to 23 compares with 972 issued last year when the annual “Don’t Text and Drive” enforcement and education campaign ran just seven days.
Police handed out more citations to drivers who were not wearing seat belts — 1,517 — than to drivers using their phones or distracted in other ways, such as the 52-year-old man in St. Paul holding a chicken in his lap. Charz Sang Xiong, of Rush City, Minn., failed to stop for three pedestrians in a crosswalk with his feathered friend with him behind the wheel.
Xiong admitted that he saw the people in the crosswalk but was unable to stop, said police spokesman Steve Linders. “Unfortunately, officers see many people with small animals on their laps, although chickens are relatively rare to see,” Linders said.
Law enforcement says the number of tickets issued for distracted driving doesn’t tell the whole story because motorists are getting more adept at keeping their phones out of view making it more difficult for police to make a stop.
“Drivers … are putting them in their laps, but I still see distracted driving all over the place,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol.
It is illegal in Minnesota for drivers to read, compose or send texts and e-mails, or go online while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic. This includes sitting at a stoplight, stop sign or while stopped in traffic. It also is illegal for drivers with a permit or provisional driver’s license to use a cellphone while driving, except for emergencies to call 911. Violators get a $50 fine, plus court fees, for the first offense. They’ll pay an additional $225 fine (for a total of $275), plus court fees, for second and subsequent violations.
In 2016, law enforcement cited nearly 6,000 drivers for texting while driving. That is up from 1,707 handed out in 2012 and 4,115 in 2015, the same year distracted driving contributed to 7,666 injuries and 74 deaths, the Department of Public Safety said.
Distracted driving is now the fourth-leading cause of crashes causing serious injuries or death, trailing speeding, seat belt use and drunken driving, which has law enforcement and traffic experts repeating imploring drivers to put down the phone.
“Just one person taking their eyes off the road can change their lives and the lives of others forever,” said Donna Berger, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. “Now is the time to make a commitment to put the phones down and the distractions away when behind the wheel.”
In Elk River, police stopped three teenagers for reading text messages from their parents. Nielson said teens already have enough to pay attention to without having their phones ping while they are behind the wheel. “Parents should not be texting teens when they are driving in the car,” she said.
Nielson said policing distracted driving remains a priority for the State Patrol and will continue even though the campaign is over. “We look for them every day,” she said.