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Distracted driving

During the distracted driving event, teens were asked to use their cell phones to text while they drove the go karts. State troopers were on the course with stop signs and traffic lights. The intent was to provide a safe environment where young drivers would get sense of how distracting texting can be.1 / 2
North Ambulance Paramedic Scott Johnson told young drivers about the injuries he's seen in distracted driving crashes.2 / 2

In an atmosphere usually brimming with good times and laughter, a serious tone overshadowed the fun at Casey's Amusement Park Monday night.

The realities of distracted driving became very real for a group of 21 local teens.

The teens were the first to take part in the Teen-Parent Distracted Driving Event on March 16.

Local businesses, paramedics, law enforcement and Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition teamed up to host the event.

It was an evening that provided a safe, controlled space for the teens to experience, first-hand, the effects of distracted driving - particularly texting. It is illegal for drivers younger than age 18 to use a cell phone at any time.

The teens - ages 14 to 17 - and their parents rotated through four learning stations set up at the amusement park:

• "Teen-driving laws information" was presented by Alexandria Police Department, and a video, "Texting Can Wait," was shown.

• "Teen-driving risks" was presented by North Ambulance Service Paramedic Scott Johnson, who told students about the injuries related to distracted-driving crashes, if there are survivors.

• "Impact of a crash" was presented by Partington Zimny Insurance and Douglas County Public Health where teens wore goggles that distorted their vision and they also learned about the stories of local crash victims.

• "On-track driving" was presented by Casey's staff, Minnesota State Patrol and Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

Out on the go-kart track at the amusement park, the teens were encouraged to drive their kart while trying to text.

While the teens zipped around the track, traffic was simulated in front of and behind them. There were several incidents of teens hitting the kart in front of them as they texted.

Minnesota State Patrol Trooper Rick Schueler has been a trooper for 22 years and before the event, he said, "Hopefully, something happening here tonight will prevent it from happening on the road later."

Schueler said, for many people, driving from point A to B seems like "down time" to use their phone.

"But it's extremely important to get from 'A' to 'B' safely and that requires more attention than young drivers realize. I hope that's what they'll learn tonight," he said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS), driver distraction is a leading crash factor in Minnesota, accounting for around 20 percent of all crashes annually, resulting in at least 70 deaths and 350 injuries.

The DPS reports that these numbers are vastly underreported due to officers' challenges of determining "distraction" as a contributing crash factor.

After the first go at hosting an event like this, organizers said they are planning to host another Teen-Parent Distracted Driving Event in September.

"Monday night went really well. We had high expectations going into it and we definitely exceeded those," said Crystal Hoepner, Douglas County health educator.

"From the parents, we had really positive feedback on this. They said it was an opportunity to start, or continue, a conversation with their teen that they hadn't had to talk about before."

The Douglas County Safe Communities Coalition organized the event - the group's mission is to decrease traffic-related fatalities and injuries in Douglas County.

The coalition joined forces with Partington Zimny Insurance, Casey's Amusement Park, North Ambulance, and local law enforcement to host the event.

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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