Behind the wheel and as passengers, we’ve all seen it on our streets and highways: The distracted driver in the next lane who appears more interested in a cellphone than the road.
Too many of us do it. And too often it causes death or injury, creating heartbreaking stories of loved ones gone forever because a driver couldn’t wait to send a text, check an e-mail or take a phone call.
Public service announcements and social media campaigns are urging drivers to put down their devices during April for “Distracted Driving Awareness Month,” and about 300 Minnesota law enforcement agencies are wisely cracking down on the practice in April by issuing more citations and stern warnings. The smart goal is to reduce the dangerous practice that has become the fourth-leading cause of crashes causing serious injuries or death.
But there’s another tool that could prevent the problem before it happens. Banning the use of hand-held electronics while driving — even for a phone call — would send the clearest signal that distracted driving will no longer be tolerated in Minnesota.
The state Legislature is unlikely to pass a stand-alone bill this session, but efforts to attach its provisions to another bill should not end, and Gov. Mark Dayton should continue to signal his support.
Here’s why it matters: In 2014, 3,179 people nationwide were killed in distraction-affected crashes, and 431,000 people were injured. About 10 percent of all fatal crashes and 18 percent of crashes with injuries occurred because of distracted driving.
Closer to home, nearly 30 percent of Minnesota drivers were found to be distracted when behind the wheel, according to a survey done on the subject in 2015. And in 2016, inattentive driving contributed to 74 deaths and 7,666 injuries in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety officials. However, those figures are likely lower than in reality because distracted driving is underreported.
Certainly phone use is not the only distraction motorists can have while driving. But using electronic devices is considered especially risky because it requires both taking a driver’s eyes off the road and one or both hands off the steering wheel.
Current Minnesota law prohibits texting while in traffic, even while waiting at a stop light, and it’s illegal for school bus drivers and teens using permits and provisional licenses to use cellphones at all while driving. Officers can issue tickets for inattentive driving, with $50 fines for a first offense and $275 for subsequent violations. In 2015, lawmakers approved tougher penalties when a driver kills or injures another person while “aware of and consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk” behind the wheel. But that’s not enough.
Groups including the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, Associated General Contractors, Minnesotans for Safe Driving, the Minnesota Safety Council and many law enforcement agencies support a ban.
Lives are being lost because too many motorists are willing to risk their lives and the lives of others. It’s time Minnesota joins 14 other states and Washington, D.C., in banning hand-held cellphone use while driving.