Attention, drivers!

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the Alexandria Police Department are conducting an educational push coupled with a targeted enforcement effort on distracted drivers on August 5.

Driver distraction is a leading factor in crashes in Minnesota, accounting for at least 25 percent of all crashes annually, resulting in 70 deaths and 350 injuries. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety reports these numbers are vastly underreported due to the challenges of determining "distraction" as a contributing crash factor.

The campaign will have a comprehensive focus on all distractions behind the wheel, beyond cell phone use and texting, according to Deputy Brandon Chaffins.

"Inattentive driving includes a range of distractions, from daydreaming to reaching for items to changing music. Our intent is to make contact with as many motorists as possible to educate them that when you're behind the wheel, your absolute focus needs to be on the road," said Deputy Chaffins.

In Minnesota it is illegal for drivers to read or compose texts or e-mails, and access the Web on a wireless device while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic, such as at a stoplight. It is illegal for drivers younger than age 18 to use a cell phone at any time. Other laws address a driver's "duty to drive with due care."

There are four main types of driver distraction:

  • Visual - looking away from the road.
  • Mechanical/physical - taking hands off the wheel: manipulation of controls, such as dialing a cell phone or adjusting radio or music device.
  • Cognitive - being "lost in thought," or focusing on a conversation, resulting in withdrawing from situational awareness.
  • A combination of these - reading a map or texting while driving.

Distractions cause drivers to react more slowly to traffic conditions or events, such as a vehicle stopping or pulling out in traffic. To minimize distractions:

  • Cell phones: turn off cell phones, or place them out of reach to avoid the urge to dial or answer. If a passenger is present, ask them to handle calls and texts.
  • Music and other controls: Pre-program your favorite radio stations for easy access and arrange music (MP3 player, CDs, tapes) in an easy-to-access spot. Adjust mirrors and heat/AC before traveling, or ask a passenger to assist.
  • Navigation: Designate a passenger to serve as a co-pilot to help with directions. If driving alone, map out destinations in advance and pull over to a safe location to study a map.
  • If you cannot avoid eating or drinking, at least avoid messy foods, and be sure food and drinks are secured.
  • Teach children the importance of good behavior in the vehicle; do not underestimate how distracting it can be to tend to children in a vehicle.
  • If you're a passenger, speak up to stop drivers from distracted driving behaviors.

"No matter how routine driving may seem, the driving environment changes constantly and you need to be focused to be able to react. Take the task of driving seriously. When you're driving, don't use time in the driver's seat to conduct other, less necessary business," said Alexandria Police Department's Sergeant Kevin Guenther.