The act of driving has always carried with it a great responsibility. A license is required to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle because a high velocity piece is capable of doing irreparable damage to life and property. Despite efforts to make roads safer, roadway crashes remain a fact of life. Alcohol consumption remains one prevalent factor in crashes, but there’s another that’s recently received its share of attention: distracted driving. Dave Boxum, public information officer with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, has provided data on just how these two risk factors compare, and Jason LaSart, captain with the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office, shared his perspective on what’s being done to make local roads safer.

Downward trend

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety was presently able to provide statewide crash data up through 2017. Trends are observable when this data is traced back through the previous five years. Between 2013 and 2017, 388,409 crashes occurred. Of this total, 70,586 (or 18 percent) were distraction related, and 19,414 were alcohol related.

Since 2013, the data shows a decrease in distraction-related crashes. Between 2013 and 2015, the numbers sat between 23 and 22 percent of the crash total, then dropping down to 12 and 11 percent the following two years. Alcohol-related crashes have fluctuated far less, averaging about 3,883 crashes per year. These numbers show a slight rise in alcohol-related crashes during this period; the numbers are up from 3,669 crashes in 2013 to 4,418 in 2017. While alcohol-related crashes have been overall less frequent during the five-year period, they are more likely to be lethal. Of the 1,754 thousand fatal crashes to occur between 2013 and 2017, 253 (or 14 percent) were distraction related while 552 (or 31 percent) were alcohol related.

Growing distractions

Captain LaSart has been the local grant writer for the Towards Zero Death initiative since 2008. Throughout the year, funding from the grant is focused on addressing different issues on a quarterly basis. During the year’s first quarter, law enforcement focuses on addressing intoxicated driving. Inattentive and distracted driving is the focus for the third quarter.

LaSart defined distracted driving as anything that occurs that takes a driver’s focus of the roadway. This could be texting, kids or other passengers being noisy or messing with a GPS or radio. Distracted driving has been an issue since drivers first took to the road, LaSart said, but the advent of the cell phone has brought the issue to prominence since the late 1990s.

Fighter jet pilots, LaSart stated, were generally accepted to be the best multitaskers when it came to vehicle operation. Even then, they could only manage four things at once. The average person’s commute, he continued, would involved listening to the radio, any other people in the car and texts and calls from their boss at work. These were the factors that compounded distracted driving. As only more technology and gadgets are added to our vehicles, the distractions grew worse.

Local work

LaSart attributed the downward trend seen in the data in part to public safety campaigns run over the past few years. As the risks related to distracted driving have become more apparent, those who work in traffic safety focused more on public education toward an awareness of distraction.

Mock crashes were one example of such educational efforts cited by LaSart. In the past two years, he had been involved in putting these crash demonstrations on at Isle and Onamia schools. Distracted driving was presented as the cause of the crash in these demonstrations, and the guest speaker invited to speak after the mock crash had lost his child in a distracted driving incident.

Explaining the law, LaSart said that no driver under the age of 18 is allowed to operate a cell phone while driving. Furthermore, it is illegal at any age to compose, read or send text or to access the internet on a cellular device while driving a vehicle in motion or in traffic. LaSart didn’t think these were laws to be taken lightly. The first citation will cost a driver $175, and the second and subsequent violations will cost $225.

And those laws are in the process of changing further. On Monday, March 16, the bill HF 0050 was passed by the Minnesota House of Representatives. This bill would prohibit all use of cellular devices while driving, with the exception of hands-free communication. The senate had received this bill from the house, and as of March 27, an amended third reading was sent to the house. The house did not concur on the amend bill, and both agreed to elect a three-person committee to review it.

When it came to best practices for safety, LaSart advised that drivers put their phones on airplane mode or silence them while driving them. If they were texting anyone right before they started driving, they should let the other person know they’d be unavailable. If there was a need to respond, drivers should get off the road and out of traffic before doing so. If other passengers were in the car, Lasart advised asking them to silence their phones as well. “So much of this is just common sense,” he said.

LaSart encouraged people to be cognizant of what was happening on the road. “If you’re eyes aren’t on the road,” he said, “you’re distracted. Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege, and we owe it to our friends, family and everyone on the road to be attentive.”

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