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Minnesota law enforcement agencies will take aim Thursday against state's distracted drivers; tickets to be issued

Distracted drivers will be the total focus of law enforcement officers statewide on Thursday, April 21. Nearly 400 agencies will increase patrols to ticket drivers who exhibit distracted driving behavior, and as a result, endanger the public.

The education and enforcement campaign is coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Office of Traffic Safety.

In Minnesota, it is illegal for drivers to read, compose or send texts/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 or stuck in traffic. It is also illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cell phone at any time.

"Your focus behind the wheel is far more important than the text message you are sending or reading behind the wheel," says Lt. Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol. "This enforcement is a reminder for drivers to make a serious effort to recognize and limit dangerous and unnecessary distractions."

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

DPS underscores driver distractions include reaching for items, fiddling with radio/music/vehicle controls, eating/drinking, dealing with rowdy passengers, grooming and more.

DPS offers these tips to minimize distractions:

n Cell phones -- turn off cell phones, or place them out of reach to avoid the urge to dial/answer or read or send a text. If a passenger is present, ask them to handle calls/texts.

n Music and other controls - pre-program favorite radio stations and arrange music in an easy-to-access spot. Adjust mirrors and AC/heat before traveling, or ask a passenger to assist.

n 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 study a map or program the GPS.

n Eating and drinking - try to avoid food/beverage, at least messy foods, and have drinks secured.

n Children - teach children the importance of good behavior in a vehicle; do not underestimate how distracting it can be to tend to children while driving.

Passengers should speak up to stop drivers from distracted driving behavior.

If making/receiving a call to/from someone driving, ask them to call back when they are not driving.

The distracted driving enforcement and education effort is a component Minnesota's core traffic safety initiative, Toward Zero Deaths (TZD). A primary vision of the TZD program is to create a safe driving culture in Minnesota in which motorists support a goal of zero road fatalities by practicing and promoting safe and smart driving behavior. TZD focuses on the application of four strategic areas to reduce crashes - education, enforcement, engineering and emergency trauma response.

To-date in Minnesota, there has been 62 traffic deaths, compared to 75 at this time in 2010.