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An Echo Press Editorial: Stop doing so many things at once and read this

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

We’re hoping that people paid attention to our story in last Friday’s issue about Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April.

It’s a topic that deserves more focus – and one that law enforcement officers will be on the lookout for all this month. Extra enforcement will be on roads throughout the state in April.

The statistics alone should give drivers pause before they reach for their cell phones, get preoccupied with their car stereo or decide to have lunch as they barrel down the road. In Minnesota, the dangerous choice to drive distracted contributed to more than 39,000 crashes from 2017-2021 and an average of 28 deaths and 161 serious, life-changing injuries a year on the road, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Fatal crashes are also a big concern locally. Last year, 13 people died on Douglas County roads – the highest number of crash-related deaths in more than 20 years, according to Crystal Hoepner, health educator with Horizon Public Health who leads the Douglas County toward Zero DeathsSafe Communities Coalition.

“People need to put their phone down,” Hoepner said during an April 5 Douglas County Board meeting.

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State officials are putting out a similar message.

“It doesn’t take much for the life story of a distracted driver to end, just like that, or end the life stories of other people on the road,” said Mike Hanson, Office of Traffic Safety director. “It can end the second they text with the phone in their hand, are lost in thought and not focused on driving, or take their eyes off the road to reach for something. Park the phone, avoid distractions and pay attention. That’s the way to drive smart and keep yourself and others safe and alive.”

In 2021, preliminary figures show distracted driving contributed to 2,165 injuries and 26 deaths in Minnesota. Distracted driving contributed to one in nine crashes from 2017-2021.

Drivers should remember that hands-free cell phone use is not just a good idea, it’s the law; drivers can no longer hold their phone in their hand.

Other points of the law that drivers should remember, according to the Office of Public Safety:

  • A driver can use voice commands or single-touch activation without holding the phone to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts, and get directions.
  • Accessing or posting on social media, streaming videos, checking box scores and Googling information on a device while driving are all still against the law in Minnesota, even in hands-free mode.

There are consequences for violating the hands-free law:

  • $100 or more including court fees for a first offense.
  • $300 or more including court fees for a second and/or subsequent offense.
  • If you injure or kill someone while violating the hands-free law, you can face a felony charge of criminal vehicular operation or homicide.

Drive smart and don’t let distractions lead to a fine, a crash, injuries or death. Tips from DriveSmartMN:

  • Cell phones: Park the phone by putting it down, turning it off, placing it out of reach or going hands free.
  • Music and other controls: Pre-program radio stations and arrange music in an easy-to-access spot. Adjust mirrors and ventilation before traveling.
  • Navigation: Map out the destination and enter the GPS route in advance.
  • Eating and drinking: Avoid messy foods and secure drinks.
  • Children: Teach children the importance of good behavior in a vehicle and model safe driving behavior.
  • Passengers: Speak up to stop drivers from distracted-driving behavior and offer to help with anything that takes the driver’s attention off the road.

Visit HandsFreeMN.org and DriveSmartMN.org for more information.

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