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Alert driving improves safety for all road users

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The tragic death last week of a mother bicycling with her two young children in Rock County is a horrifying reminder that distracted driving is a growing problem in this state. According to the criminal complaint, the driver admitted to taking his eyes off the road to check his cell phone when he hit the bicycle and bike stroller.

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Driver inattention is a leading contributing factor in fatal crashes. Cell phones and other electronic devices are commonplace in our lives today. But using them while we are driving is unsafe, irresponsible and can be deadly.

The Department of Public Safety reports one in four crashes is related to distracted driving, although such crashes are likely under-reported. Distracted driving was a contributing factor in 175 fatal crashes, resulting in 191 deaths from 2011 to 2013 in Minnesota. More than half of those crashes occurred in rural areas. Those fatalities cost Minnesota more than $269 million.

In Minnesota, it’s illegal to text while driving and to access the web while in motion or part of traffic, including at a stop light or stop sign. It’s also illegal for drivers under the age of 18 to use a cell phone while driving. Citations for these offenses increased from 388 in 2008 to 2,189 in 2013. That’s an alarming trend that must be reversed.

If you text while driving, on average you take your eyes off the road for up to 4.6 seconds out of every six seconds. That’s like traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking up, according to DPS. Using a cell phone while driving, whether hands-free or hand-held, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having an alcohol-concentration level of .08 percent.

Safety campaigns by DPS and the Minnesota Department of Transportation remind drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians that we all have the same rights and responsibilities and that we all need to “share the road.”

DPS, MnDOT and the Department of Health lead Minnesota’s Toward Zero Deaths program to reduce traffic crashes, injuries and deaths. Its mission is to create a culture for which traffic fatalities of all kinds are unacceptable. Distracted driving is unacceptable.

The popularity of mobile devices and services, and the dangerous, and deadly, consequences of their use while driving, require each of us to make some personal decisions, whether we are driving, bicycling or even walking. Our personal decisions can save lives. It’s time for us to take that next step.

We should turn off cell phones or place them out of reach to avoid the urge to answer. We should pledge to never text and drive. We should plan our trips in advance to avoid fiddling with a GPS device or application while driving. We should pull over to a safe location if we must look at a map. We should designate a passenger to help with directions or when using devices such as a GPS. We should speak up if we’re a passenger to stop drivers from distracted driving behavior.

Distracted driving goes beyond just mobile devices. Anytime we take our eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and our minds off our driving, we’re putting lives at risk. Children should be taught the importance of good behavior in a vehicle. Drivers who have to tend to children are distracted drivers. So are drivers who are eating, drinking or grooming.

Let’s all heed the lessons that too many Minnesotans learn the hard way. Let’s pay more attention to our driving, biking and walking.

This piece was submitted by Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger, Minnesota Department of Health, Commissioner Mona Dohman, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and Charlie Zelle, Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

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