“Fatal crash ‘never should have happened‘”. That headline, on the front page of the Minnesota section of the Star Tribune on June 1st, referred to a fatal crash that occurred a year ago in rural Rock County, when a driver in a pickup truck, going 55 miles an hour, looked down at his cell phone to make a call. He never saw the mother of two young girls biking alongside the roadway until it was too late.
Just a few days earlier, another crash story had caught my eye, this time in the Pioneer Press. The article described a crash that occurred at Dunn Brothers on Grand Avenue at Snelling, just a few blocks from where I live. In this case, the driver said he was reaching into his pocket to get his keys and cell phone, and his car swerved across the westbound traffic lane and jumped the curb onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, no one died, but the car essentially wiped out the benches, tables and chairs in front of the coffee shop, and injured five people, two of whom were taken to the hospital for treatment of leg and ankle injuries.
Both these incidents were the result of distracted driving — or “inattentive driving”, as it’s called in official police reports. In the first instance, the driver was going 55 miles an hour and the consequences were tragic, leaving two little girls to be brought up by a single father. In the second instance, the human costs were far less dire, partly because the driver was going much more slowly. And because it was nine o’clock at night, there were only a few people sitting outside the coffee shop; otherwise the results could have been much worse.
Data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety shows that distracted driving accounts for 25% of all crashes. In 2014, distracted driving contributed to 61 deaths and 198 serious injuries in Minnesota. And what many people don’t realize is it’s not just cell phones and texting; it can be anything that takes the driver’s attention off the road — checking driving instructions, reaching for a drink or sandwich, conversing angrily or animatedly with a passenger, breaking up a fight between the kids in the back seat.
The problem with distracted driving is that most people don’t take the dangers seriously until they are directly affected, either as victim or driver responsible for a crash. In the Rock County crash described above, the driver was devastated by the realization that he was responsible for the death of a young wife and mother. In November 2014, he pleaded guilty to felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide and served a 120-day jail term. His sentence also includes 300 hours of community service work and three years on probation. But this driver wants to do more to reduce the number of crashes due to distracted driving, which he views as “an epidemic”. So he’s speaking out publicly, trying to prevent others from thinking as he did before the crash — that it won’t matter if they look away for a moment. In the coming year, he will be talking to high school students throughout the upper midwest. He also tells his story in a powerful video produced by the Minnesota State Patrol, entitled “Shattered Dreams: Distracted Driving Changes Lives”.
In the Dunn Brothers crash, it’s still too early to tell what the consequences will be for the driver, and how he will respond to whatever justice is meted out. According to Saint Paul Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos, he has cooperated with the police as they completed their investigation. The driver has now been cited for reckless driving and no proof of insurance, and will head to Saint Paul Traffic Court. If he chooses to plead guilty, he will be sentenced by the judge. A not-guilty plea will lead to prosecution and a trial. I’ll be interested to see if his experience will lead him to try to help others understand how costly a moment’s distraction can be while driving.
Meanwhile, MnDOT is using several approaches to impress on drivers the importance of staying focused on the road while driving. In April, state law enforcement officers issued more than 900 citations to distracted drivers over a six-day period. The State Patrol is also going to be showing the distracted driving video mentioned above at schools and community meetings.
The Metro Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program is also stepping it up a notch in the Twin Cities area by hosting a daylong workshop (here’s the agenda) this coming Friday, June 5th, at the Prom Center in Oakdale. Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle will open the workshop, which covers a wide range of topics related to safe driving. Cautionary tales and success stories will be shared and resources will be offered to help reduce crashes of all types. At the end of the day, the District Councils Collaborative will lead a walk audit of the area around the Prom Center to experience firsthand what it would be like to walk to the shopping center across the street or to the proposed Bus Rapid Transit station down the block. The workshop is free, but registration is required. You can register online, too.
The truth of the matter is that multiple strategies will be required to curb distracted driving. So far, personal testimonials and p0lice enforcement appear to be the most effective approaches, but I wonder if we shouldn’t be doing more. Should sentences be harsher for distracted driving crashes that cause injuries to others, but are not fatal? Or is it better to be more lenient with drivers who appear to be genuinely repentant, in hopes that they will share their stories in a compelling way that can change attitudes? Should we require that cell phone be silenced and placed out of reach to avoid temptation, especially for young drivers? What other ideas do streets.mn readers have to offer to reduce, and eventually eliminate crashes caused by distracted driving?