Minnesotans apparently are not getting the message that they should not be texting while behind the wheel. In a six-day campaign last month to crack down on the practice, law enforcement officers from across the state issued citations to 909 drivers. That compares with 550 issued in a 10-day period in April 2014 when police sought out distracted drivers.
In Minnesota, it is illegal for a driver to use a wireless communication device to send, compose or read an electronic message, or access the Internet while a vehicle is in traffic. That includes drivers stopped at a red light.
The Drive received several e-mails from readers commenting that they have seen police officers driving while looking at their computers and phones. They wonder why the restriction on using electronic devices behind the wheel does not apply to law enforcement.
The State Patrol gave the answer during a live Facebook chat it recently held in conjunction with Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which ended Thursday.
“Despite the fact multi-tasking is not something that can be ‘trained,’ why is it that law enforcement officers are not themselves being forced to only use their electronics while stopped,” a chat participant asked. “I’ve seen way too many of them weaving while using a computer or cellphone. They are not immune to the effects of doing more than one thing requiring their concentration.”
Minnesota law allows operators of authorized emergency vehicles to use electronic devices while performing their official duties, but they are to do so without impairing their driving or endangering other motorists.
“We are just as responsible to drive safely as any other driver. In fact, we are expected to drive more safely,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol. “We do have to use our resources, but need to do it in a safe manner.”
Hands-free mode is OK
Minnesota law does allow drivers to use electronic devices when in a voice-activated or hands-free mode. Several chat participants asked about using GPS navigation apps on their phones. Since phone apps access the Internet, it can be illegal if the driver is adjusting it or inputting information while behind the wheel.
“You are distracted if your attention is taken away from the road and results in dangerous driving behavior such as swerving, drifting, etc.,” Nielson said. “If you set your GPS prior to leaving, and do not touch or adjust it, and focus on driving with the voice commands, you are not in violation.”
State law allows motorists to use their electronic devices to report a traffic accident, medical emergency or hazard on the road. They also can use them to prevent a crime about to be committed or summon help when a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger.
Concerned motorists wondered if they should call 911 if they spot drivers who appear to be inattentive or exhibit telltale signs of distracted driving, such as failing to signal lane changes, drifting between lanes or driving at erratic speeds.
“We get these calls all the time,” said 911 dispatcher Deborah Schwichtenberg in responding to a question about whether to call in. “Eighty percent of the time it is them texting and driving, but the other 20 percent they have been impaired or needed immediate medical attention. It is very important to call it in.”