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Texting and going online while behind the wheel has become an ‘epidemic’ in Minnesota

By Nathan Bowe / DL Newspapers

Last May, a 20-year-old Facebook fan was allegedly looking at photos while speeding along a North Dakota highway when she smashed into an SUV that had slowed to make an illegal U-turn, killing an 89-year-old passenger, according to court records.

 

Abby Sletten is accused of texting and having her eyes on Facebook photos instead of the road as she drove 85 miles per hour on I-29 towards Grand Forks.

Allegedly distracted by photos on her cell phone, she never slowed as she plowed into the back of the SUV, killing passenger Phyllis Gordon.

Sletten reportedly plans to plead guilty on April 22 in Traill County District Court.

Minnesota state troopers in Moorhead recently rode around in a school bus and made a number of distracted driver citations, including one man who was texting and eating at the same time and “had no hands on the wheel,” said State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow, the public information officer for northwestern Minnesota.

A state trooper that recently responded to a traffic accident reported that seven of the 10 cars he passed had drivers fiddling with cell phones or using other electronic devices.

It’s become an epidemic on the roadways – drivers paying more attention to their cell phones than the traffic in front of them.

It can be difficult to catch people in the act of distracted driving, Grabow said. “It’s tricky – it’s a very difficult law to enforce,” he added.

That’s part of the reason that Grabow has become much less tolerant of distracted driving since he first started noticing drivers messing with flip phones and bag phones 17 years ago.

He’d pull them over, trying to determine if they were impaired or sleepy, and they’d say, “I was trying to make this phone call,” Grabow said.

It was an oddity then. Now it’s become “an epidemic,” he says, and it’s a common occurrence to witness distracted driving.

“I’m a lot less tolerant now of over-the-line violations,” he said. “Maybe I can’t cite them for texting, but I can cite them for center line violations, fog line violations, and not signaling for lane changes.”

Texting while driving is a petty misdemeanor, but Grabow said that charge can change, depending on the circumstances.

“It can be enhanced from there,” he said. “If anybody is injured in a crash, or killed, it can be anything from careless driving to criminal vehicular homicide.”

A 2008 Minnesota law prohibits drivers from using email, text, instant messaging, even online music programs like Pandora or Shizam, behind the wheel. That includes accessing any kind of online page, either sending or receiving, Grabow said.

“One guy (recently cited) was FaceTiming as he was going down the road.”

FaceTime and similar programs let users make video calls, so they can see as well as hear the person on the other end of the call.

Plain old talking on a cellphone while driving is still legal in Minnesota and surrounding states, although it is banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

Research shows that when drivers use cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-off, their attention to the road drops and driving skills become even worse than if they had too much to drink, according to the American Psychological Association.

Using a cell phone behind the wheel means a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident — a risk comparable to driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit.

That’s why state law is tougher on less experienced drivers.

Those under age 18 can’t use cell phones at all while they’re driving (except to call 911). And for the first six months after they get their license, only one passenger under age 25 is allowed in the car (immediate family excepted).

Oddly enough, one of the most dangerous places to use a cell phone is in a parking lot, since there’s a lot of cars coming and going, limited visibility as people back out, and there can be kids running around.

Add cell phone distractions into the mix and it can spell trouble. Grabow says he watches his young kids like a hawk in parking lots, and teaches them safe behavior.

The moral of the story is to limit all types of distractions in the car and focus on your driving, Grabow says.

“Nobody thinks it’s going to happen to them,” he adds. “You just try to rationalize it – I’m just checking my phone quick. All it takes is once. Eventually your luck will run out on a bad habit, and it can result in hurting someone else, or killing them.”

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364
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