Sending a text message distracts a driver for 4.5 seconds.

That’s like driving blind at 55 miles per hour for the length of a football field. Using a cell phone diverts 37 percent of your attention away from driving. It’s like driving with a blood alcohol level of .08, which is the legal limit in Minnesota.

Minnesota legislators have made texting while driving illegal, but drivers, except for school bus drivers and teens learning to drive, are allowed to talk on cell phones.

This age of technology has produced these communication devices that are causing one out of every four accidents in Minnesota. While the results of distracted and drunk driving, including deaths on the highways, are the same, the penalties are not.

The penalty for a first offense of texting while driving is a fine up to $300. Compare that to a first drunk driving offense of up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 and a suspended driver’s license for 90 days. An accident involving a distracted driver who kills someone could result in a charge of criminal vehicular operation or homicide. A conviction could also result in imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of no more than $20,000 or both.

Moreover, civil damages from a death caused by distracted driving could cost in the millions.

In his 17 years with the Minnesota State Patrol, Sgt. Neil Dickenson, currently the state patrol’s public information officer for the northeast region, has observed more vehicles on the road and many more distracted drivers.

“Distracted driving is highly under-reported,” said Paul Bruggman, coordinator of the Aitkin County Toward Zero Deaths Coalition, and retired state trooper. “I think it could be considerably higher.”

State legislators are becoming more aware of the need to increase penalties for distracted driving. Gov. Mark Dayton said he would support a change in making consequences tougher. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said they are becoming more concerned about the seriousness of distracted driving.

The Senate and House have taken steps to amend the law on reckless driving. This change makes a driver who disregards and takes a risk that results in harm to another or property guilty of reckless driving. A driver who consciously disregards substantial risk that the driving may result in great bodily harm or death is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. The penalty for a gross misdemeanor could be a year in jail, a $3,000 fine or both and two years of probation.

“There has been an increase in awareness in the last few years in the area of distracted driving,” according to Aitkin County Sheriff Scott Turner. “Many of the same driving behaviors that are the result of impaired operation are also the result of distracted driving. We do not specifically track citations for distracted driving.”

Two years ago, Minnesota became the third state to ban text-messaging and online browsing while driving. It is illegal for drivers to read/compose/send text messages and emails, or access the Internet using a wireless device while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic  – including stopped in traffic or at a traffic light.

Now, 19 states and the District of Columbia do it. Six states and Washington, D.C., meanwhile, ban drivers from using handheld cell phones. None, however, bans all cell-phone use (hand-held and hands-free devices).

“It is still legal for adults to use a cell phone while driving,” said Turner. “It is difficult to differentiate when someone is texting versus when someone is making a phone call. To make it more enforceable, there needs to be a change in the law. Now, the focus is primarily on the driving behavior as a result of the phone usage. One change that would make existing laws more enforceable would be for a ‘hands free’ requirement while a vehicle is being operated. Many people have begun to see the dangers of driving while using a cell phone as we are seeing more motorists pulled over to the side of the road while using their cell phones.”

Critics of tougher penalties for distracted driving say that blaming accidents on distracted drivers is hard to prove, while drunken driving can be measured by blood-alcohol tests.

During a statewide saturation in April, more than 900 drivers were cited for distracted driving. That is nearly double the number of citation issued during a 14-day statewide saturation in 2014. Texting was just one area where drivers were found to be distracted.

Dickenson said he is alarmed at the number of drivers who are texting or using cell phones while they are driving. He is also concerned about the number of serious injury and fatal crashes that could be prevented, the failure of drivers to slow down when road conditions are poor and the number of drivers who fail to move over for emergency vehicles that are stopped on the shoulders.

“The danger of distracted driving,” said Bruggman, is that it’s no longer confined to the middle of the night. It’s all day, all ages and by people from every walk of life. I am more frightened of a distracted driver than a drunk driver.”

“The biggest concern these days is the apparent attitude among many that driving does not require their undivided attention,” added Turner. “Much progress has been made in Minnesota in the past several years in reducing the number of traffic-related fatalities. From the high of 1,060 in 1968 to  all-time low of 361 in 2014, we are certainly headed in the right direction. The four Es:  Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Emergency Medical Services – as identified in our local Toward Zero Deaths Coalition – have all contributed to that decline.  With a goal of reducing that number to under 300 by 2020, it is going to take everyone’s effort.”

2013 crash facts

Minnesota’s 2013 fatality rate is .68 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The U.S. fatality rate is 1.11.  In 2012, (most recent national data), Minnesota was second behind Massachusetts for the lowest fatality rate in the U.S.

The 387 2013 fatalities involve motorists (269); motorcyclists (60); pedestrians (35); bicyclists (6); ATV riders (7); farm equipment occupants (5); snowmobile riders (2) and three unknown vehicle types.

• Of the 387 fatalities, 81 (21 percent) were known to be drunk-driving related.

• Of the 387 fatalities, 76 (20 percent) were known to be speed related.

• Of the 387 fatalities, 68 (18 percent) were known to be distracted driving related.

In 2013, there were 30,653 people injured in traffic crashes, of which 1,216 were severe and life altering.

Dickenson did say that vehicles are safer today than in the past. More people are wearing seatbelts; intersections have been made safer; and roads have been improved with cable safety barriers and guardrails.

Dickenson’s advice to drivers: “Slow down, wear your seatbelt, reduce your distractons while driving, provide a safe following distance between you and the vehicle in front of you, don’t drink and drive and if you are on medications, know and understand the side effects prior to driving. Drive like your life depends on it, as it does.”

“The best advice is for everyone to take the ‘It can wait’ no texting while driving pledge,” said Turner. “Slow down and dedicate all of your attention to the driving task at hand.”

Distractions

Besides using a cell phone or text messaging, here are other distractions:

Grooming or applying make-up.

Checking a map or GPS device.

Adjusting a CD player, cassette deck, radio or MP3 player.

Watching videos.

Talking to children or other passengers.

Dealing with pets.

Drinking or eating.

Minnesota statistics

Contributing factors in SINGLE vehicle crashes

1. Illegal or unsafe speed 26.3%

2. Driver inattention 11.6%,

3. Chemical impairment 6.7%

4. Overcorrecting 6.9%

Contributing factors in MULTIPLE vehicle crashes

1. Driver inattention 21.8%,

2. Failure to yield 18.4%,

3. Following too closely 12.7%

4. Speed 7.6%

Source: Minnesotans for Safe Driving

Driver distraction was reported to have been involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 according to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).

The age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the under-20 age group.

An estimated 21 percent of injury crashes were reported to have involved distracted driving, according to data from the General Estimates System (GES).

Source: Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths

Distracted driving is deadly driving

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