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Changing the ‘culture’ of texting and driving: Minnesota officers in crackdown

An electronic sign seen Tuesday on U.S. Highway 12 east of Willmar warns motorists to drive carefully. The two messages displayed by the sign read: “Be alert crashes hurt” and “Phone down belt on.” Gary Miller/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Just as the “culture” of driving while intoxicated has changed, Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol also would like to see a change in distracted driving habits.

“Texting while driving has evolved into a big problem not only in Minnesota, but also nationwide,” said Nielson, who noted that in Minnesota alone last year 74 lives were lost to distracted driving and 25 percent of all accidents were caused by people taking their eyes off the road.

In another step toward changing the “culture,” the patrol and more than 300 other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are working overtime hours this week to enforce the state’s “not texting while driving” law — which can bring a hefty fine of $45 plus court charges of about $90 on the first offense and a ticket of $275 the second time.

Although a tally of the number of tickets given with the extra officers won’t be known until after the campaign is over Sunday, several tweets were coming in by officers describing some of the incident they have seen so far this week, according to Nielson of the Twin Cities office and Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the northwest Minnesota district office.

Some of the tweets were:

  • A 22-year-old woman was cited by trooper in Duluth for texting. Said she was talking on phone but the text screen was the first screen to pop up when the phone was opened.
  • A 45-year-old man near Crookston was reading news on phone, looking in his lap when he passed a trooper.
  • A 22-year-old woman was cited by a trooper in Shakopee for texting her boyfriend at a red light while stopped alongside a trooper.
  • A 26-year-old woman was stopped by a trooper in Duluth and claimed she was checking a call log. When the phone was dug out from under her seat and unlocked, it opened to text screen. 
  • A 36-year-old man by stopped by a trooper near Thief River Fall for speeding. He said, “I was eating and wasn’t paying attention.” 
  • A St. Joseph police officer stopped a man for running a stop sign, who said he was distracted by his dog who had gotten out of his kennel and he was trying to get him back in.

“It’s a variety of things that are distracting drivers,” Nielson said. “I once saw a man put down his breakfast he was eating with a fork and spoon on the passenger seat after he was stopped.”

Nielson also said people in some rural areas think they can be in a “safe zone” with few cars, but then a bicyclist or runner — perhaps out training — can pop up out of seemingly nowhere. Several cases of those type of accidents also have been reported.

Nielson said there is just such a “small margin of error” for anyone using their phone for texting or reading.

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