“It Never Should Have Happened.” But What’s Being Done About It?

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.

Police officer talks to driver who crashed his car into the front of Dunn Brothers

Police officer talks to driver who crashed his car into the front of Dunn Bros                                                           Photos by Brian Quarstad except where noted.

Luckily only a few bandages after car takes out benches in front of Dunn Bros

Luckily only a few bandages after car takes out benches in front of Dunn Bros. Photographer unknown.

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.

FullSizeRender (4)

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.

FullSizeRender (3)

Debris after the crash

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.

FullSizeRender (1)

After the crash

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?

Anne White

About Anne White

Anne White lives in the Merriam Park neighborhood of Saint Paul. She is currently the Land Use Chair for the Union Park District Council (District 13) and serves on the Governing Council of the District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC). After moving to the Twin Cities in 2003, she retired from her work as a professional photographer and began working to ensure that community concerns were fully considered in planning for the Green Line LRT. Now that the line is up and running, including stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western, her main focus is on walkability, making sure that people of all ages and levels of mobility have safe, pleasant walking routes to LRT and other destinations. She was recently appointed to the St Paul Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission as the Active Living community representative.

49 thoughts on ““It Never Should Have Happened.” But What’s Being Done About It?

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I’m for adding a multiplier to all moving violations if an eyes distracting device is involved. X3, X5, X10

    (Tangent) We should also look elderly drivers to capture early stages of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or vision deficit. Certainly a sort of distracted driving.

    1. echoegami

      I agree with Eric, not only do we need to impress upon people the need to be present while operating a vehicle but we also need to retest people, I would be in favor of retesting every ten years w/ every five years over the age of 50. I know a few people who shouldn’t be on the road as they’re a fatality just waiting to happen but as long as they can pass a pathetic vision test at the DMV they continue to drive our roads.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The #MinnesotaMassacre continued last night, with a skateboarder dying due to a moving vehicle at Grand and Fairview in St. Paul. Ugh.

    Our whole society has blood on its hands for creating and embracing motordom that is the primary cause of death in children and young adults. Cars are killing us, and it’s like we don’t even care.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Obviously distracted driving is a problem. But why do people engage in distractions while operating a multi-thousand-pound killing machine? Because we’ve gone all-out on “forgiving design” which was intended to forgive people’s mistakes on rural roads with things like gradual curves, wide lanes, “curb reaction zones,” and lack of objects in the “clear zone” (people don’t count). But risk compensation theory explains why this has been so disastrous, especially as we have pushed forgiving design principles even onto our most urban streets. We need to realize that personal responsibility plays a part, but design plays a part too. We’ve made our cities #DeadlyByDesign.

      1. Wayne

        We need to ban all turns on red and have stiff penalties for blocking sidewalks and crosswalks. Don’t pull up into the pedestrian realm until you’ve made sure it’s clear of people and you have a clear path to the road open. If sight lines are a problem they need to change the intersection or eliminate the dangerous curb cut.

        1. Monte Castleman

          We could do like France: Right on Red is only allowed where there’s a signal allowing it, and then they have a flashing yellow right turn arrow during any pedestrian phases to remind cars they do not have the right of way.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

            I agree.

            I think this is the case throughout Europe, not just France. Off hand I can’t think of anywhere outside of the U.S. that allows right-on-red except as you described, with a very specific (and rare) signal. Hasn’t NY state or NYC outlawed it as well?

    2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      As I understand it, the skateboarder came out of an alley at speed and didn’t bother to slow down. Can’t exactly pin that one on “distracted driving”.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        The point I am making is that regardless of if it’s distracted driving or anything else, we have a public health epidemic of humans dying and being maimed by motor vehicles. Yet we act like it’s not happening.

  3. UrbanDoofus

    We need to actually enforce the laws on the books so that people don’t think of it as a suggestion instead of law. We are far too nice to distracted drivers in this state. At minimum I believe talking while driving should be outlawed in MPLS and St Paul. If you harm or kill someone, harsh sentence. Not up for debate. Driving is a privilege, and it comes with great responsibility.

    1. Wayne

      Yeah despite my hyperbole below, I do honestly think mandatory jail time, heavy fines and revocation of license for at least a year after they get out of jail should be standard for killing someone with a car. Something similar but less severe if you “only” injure but don’t kill someone. No pretending it was an ‘accident’ instead of negligent driving. Using the word accident just psychologically removes blame from the person operating the vehicle. If everyone was paying attention and driving safely it wouldn’t have happened, so it’s not accidental except in the sense one didn’t intentionally do it. But they *did* intentionally flout the law by not paying enough attention to safely operating their vehicle. I’m so sick of legal murder by car.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        So in the skateboarder example that Matt cited earlier, where (if the news reports are accurate) you have a vehicle driver who was doing everything legal and by no fault of the driver, the skateboarder kareens into the vehicle and dies…you would still give the driver jail time?

        Yes, you were a victim as you noted below, and yes there are plenty of drivers who are responsible for fatalities. But not all fatalities are the fault of the driver.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I guess since pedestrians are never responsible for anything, even if they’re the ones running into cars, or jaywalking, or violating a “Don’t Walk” sign while blasting headphones, we should set a 5 mph speed limit for cars and mandate that a someone walk in front waving flares or red flags to warn any pedestrian that might walk into the path of the car.

          1. Rosa

            Have you ever been randomly walked into by a jaywalker? Much less in a way that injured you?

            Several of us just in this thread have been hit, some more than once, while crossing in a crosswalk with the light. This is a news story about someone who decided to put his head down below window level and rummage for his keys while driving something that can kill people, and injured four people. Car drivers kill hundreds of people every year.

            And you jump straight to “some people jaywalk! Some pedestrians wear headphones!”

            One set of people is driving a giant, heavy, fast-moving machine that multiplies the damage they can do by thousands of times. One set is just locomoting their own body around. One set is supposedly licensed for competence. One includes every single mobile human, of every age and competence level.

            Which side should have more responsibility?

            1. Monte Castleman

              The comment was about the skateboarder that ran into a car, not the original scenario in the post about a driver on a cell phone. And while cars do have responsibility, my point is pedestrians do too to the point not to do something illegal or that a reasonable person would know is unsafe, a point of view not shared by everyone ere.

            2. Wayne

              Hooray for victim-blaming! If you’re not in a car, you’re a scofflaw who got in the way, right?

        2. Rosa

          Just like with guns, there are cases that are actually not negligence. But given the rate of deaths vs. the rate of prosecutions – for anything at all – of drivers, I’m pretty sure we’re not yet erring on the side of driver responsibility.

          1. Wayne

            This. I know there are rare occasions (mostly suicides or mechanical failures) where the person driving could have done nothing to prevent it. But those cases are not the norm, as Monte would seem to imply. Those are the exceptions. I’m reasonably sure that the vast majority of pedestrian traffic fatalities could have been prevented by more attentive driving.

      2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Strict Liability seems great but I’m not sure that in practice it does much. Do enough people really think about such things and change their driving behavior? Or do they think that ‘it won’t happened to me, I’ll never kill anyone’ and go on as always?

        1. Rosa

          it seems like higher enforcement with lower punishments has the most effect on people’s behavior. People don’t think “oh no I’ll kill someone and go to jail” as often as they think “I might get a speeding ticket!”

  4. Wayne

    As someone who has been injured by divers not paying attention (thankfully not too badly or permenantly) I’m off a mind to toss them in jail, revoke their license, and destroy their car. If the consequences of being a bad driver and hurting people are being blacklisted from ever driving again maybe people will take it more seriously.

    In reality they’d just drive without a license like so many people already do. Maybe we should just burn them on a stake.

    1. UrbanDoofus

      Full disclosure: I was hit by a car while walking in a cross walk, and when I had the signal.

      I don’t know if we need to go as far as property seizure as Wayne suggests, but depending on the level of severity, there needs to be some consequence.

      1. Wayne

        I’ve been hit thrice while legally crossing with the right of way. Only once was hard enough to really hurt me but it’s turned me into a militant angry pedestrian. I’m over all the excuses drivers have for their disregard for my life and limb. I’ll gladly ruin their paint job or break a window if they put my life at risk with negligence.

        1. Keith Morris

          I’ve had close calls, but haven’t been hit (yet). I’m sure it’s largely due to crossing defensively; even though I have right of way I always look out for motorists ignoring that. Just today there was a motorist turning right in front of the stopped #10 on Central while the signal was greeb *from the left hand travel lane* and through the crosswalk with its walk signal on too.

          1. Keith Morris

            Back in Columbus I’ve been seeing a rash of car crashes in the news daily: utility poles, trees, bus benches, and pedestrians in crosswalks all getting hit. It’s even worse out there, though one time a pickup didn’t yield as I entered the crosswalk Downtown I broke his sideview mirror: see me now?

    2. Rosa

      I was hit and run my very first day living in Minneapolis, crossing in the crosswalk in front of the convention center on my way to my first day of work.

      I’d love to see lots of people lose their licenses, for at least a year or so, over these kinds of “accidents”. It would serve a lot of purposes at once – it’s a life-altering but not jail or felony consequence, it’s something (unlike a year in jail) that is lenient enough judges and prosecutors might actually enforce it, and it would increase the number of nondrivers in a way that might drive support for transit & pedestrian improvements.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        I hesitate rescinding licenses. Today it just isn’t a deterrent. People drive without licenses at abhorrent rates. I wish it had an effect. Having our cities virtually require cars to do anything induces people to violate driving without licenses.

        Maybe we could look at giving people a new plate like we do for DWIs to go with a monstrous fine. To allow any LEO to pull them over for any reason.

          1. Rosa

            So can getting hit by a car, you know. If I’d been even mildly injured, I would have lost that temp job that day. And I’d moved to the Cities with $50 and a friend’s floor to sleep on.

            1. Wayne

              Not to mention the PTSD it can cause where you’re certain every person creeping the crosswalk or looking down while rolling up to a corner or curb cut is probably going to run you over and speed off afterwards.

        1. Wayne

          That’s why I suggested we also take their vehicle away and lock them up. Simply revoking a license does nothing to deter unsafe driving.

    1. UrbanDoofus

      $400 is a pretty decent fine. Whether or not people are getting stung for this is an entirely different issue.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Although I enjoy driving a car, I think I’d also enjoy not driving a car. Hop into my car and let it drive me to Anoka or Chicago while I talk on the cell phone or even take a nap.

  5. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great article Anne.

    Distracted driving is a tough nut. We need to publicize it more and tighten up regulations both specific to distracted driving and presumed/strict liability. I don’t know that these will have much effect though.

    I believe we need to change the way we design our roads to force drivers to drive more carefully and allow them to drive more carefully. Forcing them to drive more carefully is tighter radius corners, narrower lanes, and other things that make our roads ‘more dangerous’.

    Allowing them to drive more carefully includes elements like moving crossings back from junctions so that drivers can deal with one thing at a time. Instead of trying to look for cars from numerous directions as well as bicycle riders and pedestrians coming from here, there, and yonder all at once, a crossing set a car length from a junction allows the driver to do one thing and then focus their attention on just the crossing. This also places bicycle riders and pedestrians in the natural vision and so much easier to see.

    BTW, the guy in Rock County is partnering with the husband of the woman he killed to spread the message about distracted driving. They both deserve major kudos for that.

  6. GlowBoy

    ” 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.”

    It seems to have become fashionable to lob out this caveat in pretty much every story being done by anyone these days on distracted driving.

    Yes, yes it’s true that these other things can be hazardous, but texting (or otherwise interacting with a smartphone) is an order of magnitude more dangerous than any of them. Reaching into a bag of fries is NOT the same thing as typing in a text on a touchscreen.

    Presenting all these distractions as somehow equivalent is itself a distraction from the biggest problem out there. Texting and driving is at least as dangerous as drunk driving, and it’s out of control. Before we ban cupholders or intra-car conversation, let’s focus on the one that’s actually killing hundreds (and possibly thousands) of people every year.

  7. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Having grown up on a rural highway, I’m not sure what could change the safety of rural roads. As my mother once said when I moved away to college, rural drivers are usually more dangerous because there is less traffic and they often drive like they are the only ones on the road. At least in a more urban setting, people might understand that they are not the only ones using the streets.

    What would do for pedestrian safety in an urban environment? I think sight lines are very important for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Unlike some people commenting here, I’ve felt better safety with right turn on reds than the no right turn on reds. I find at the no right turn on reds intersections, drivers are so eager to turn once that light is green that they seem to be “distracted” from the fact that there might be a pedestrian also crossing on the green.

    I also felt safer with the pork chops that used to be at University and Snelling than I do with the current design. As people begin to turn right with the pork chop, the angle allows them to see a pedestrian standing/beginning to cross and allows me, the pedestrian to see their eyes to know that they are paying attention. The current design at University and Snelling makes drivers turn at an angle. They seem to be more distracted with traffic in regards to whether their lane is open, whether they can make the green, turning yellow light, and other obstacles and I have rarely had eye contact or felt safe crossing since. I would promote pork chop islands at busy intersections for pedestrian safety.

    I also think that wider, tree lined medians allow drivers to be more like rural drivers or drivers on interstates. They don’t really interact with traffic moving the opposite direction and drivers begin to feel more comfortable on these types of streets. This comfort level allows them to feel that they are safe to check cell phone, put on make-up, eat, look at a map, read something in the paper, etc. Most of the recent medians of this type have been installed on busier streets as a pedestrian safety measure. However, to me, the safest measure would be to make the driver feel less comfortable, let drivers be aware of on-coming traffic, and promote open spaces where pedestrians are likely to cross in order for both driver and pedestrians to have good views of each other. I think of Champs Elysees, a busy, fast moving street in Paris with a high amount of pedestrian activity as well. The pedestrian safety refuge areas in the middle are mostly narrow, but highly visible to drivers. Drivers surely are quite aware of oncoming traffic as they are very close to it. This type of design creates uncertainty for the driver, rather than comfort, likely leading to more attentive driving, which would seem to protect pedestrian lives, as well.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I actually agree that I like pork chop islands as a pedestrian. Although I have to wait for a break in traffic to cross the turn lane, there’s less pavement to cross at a single time than with a conventional turn lane. And I know a car stopped at the light isn’t going to start out unexpectedly to make a right turn, maybe without seeing me.

      Conversely I don’t like them as a driver. They have their place at intersections with a high turning volume, but you have to turn your neck at a sharp angle to look for traffic when “merging” onto the street. Even when a lane is added I don’t trust another driver not to swerve into it.

      1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

        Do you feel like that lack of trust regarding what other drivers might do makes you more attentive? Observing drivers in various situations and riding with drivers who tend to be more alert/on edge at certain times more than others, I think designing something where drivers feel that unpredictability probably leads to less distracted driving and ideally safer for pedestrians.

        1. GlowBoy

          Not a fan of the pork chops myself. They do break up pedestrians’ crossings into more manageable chunks, but their ultimate purpose is to increase turning radii and encourage cars to take corners without slowing down. I typically find drivers are a lot less likely to notice me as a pedestrian or cyclist as they’re cruising around these channelizers. it doesn’t help that these typically also move the crosswalk away from the corner, so it’s not where drivers expect it and ultimately it makes me take a longer path to get where I’m going. Usually the better solution is to remove the porkchop and tighten up the radius. if the road has multiple lanes there should still be enough room for trucks to turn.

          1. Wayne

            I agree with you. If drivers actually noticed or obeyed the yield signs on the slip lanes it might be different, but they don’t. The entire purpose of the geometry is to allow them to drive faster through their turn, which isn’t really conducive to pedestrian safety when crossing.

    2. Rosa

      Where right turn on red makes a big difference is in where drivers stop – usually after they’re already in the crosswalk, which is SUPER unsafe for pedestrians.

      And then if you’re trying to cross the street a block or two down from the stoplight intersection, right turn on red at the stoplight means there’s never a real break in traffic during busy times of day. That’s a real problem for streets I need to cross almost every day – Bloomington Ave, 26th St, 28th St, 42nd Street, 26th Avenue.

      1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

        On the busy streets, there’s rarely a break anyway. I cross Chicago and 28th often in Minneapolis. There is a no right turn on red, but as busy as it is, that isn’t safe, either. Sometimes, it is a little safer to jaywalk, because the driver ismore likely to see you. But that intersection is where I’ve had the most near misses. Perhaps if we do have no rights on red, then those busy intersections should also have pedestrian scramble lights, which would give pedestrians a break from moving cars.

        1. Rosa

          That would be lovely.

          I do fine crossing by myself, but a near-decade of being a pedestrian with little kids in tow, and a couple years now of riding with my child on his own bike, have made it really obvious how terrible drivers are at either noticing or yielding to pedestrians.

          And there are a bunch of crossings without stoplights that we shunt pedestrians and bikes through by design – every place 17th or 40th (designated bike boulevards) cross a busy street without a stoplight – 28th & 26th being the worst – and my own corner at 34th and Bloomington where you can SEE the pedestrian entrance & wading pool for Powderhorn Park, and it’s the direct path from Corcoran Park to Powderhorn – but there’s nothing to stop drivers but their consciences and a lot of countervailing pressure (in the form of honking, tailgating, and swerving around) from other drivers to NOT stop for pedestrians.

  8. Wayne Richter

    “…reaching into his pocket to get his keys and cell phone.”

    1. talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal for a school bus driver in Minnesota,
    but not for the parent with children in the car. Why not?

    2. The GHSA (Governors Highway Safety Association) supports state
    legislation that would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, for ALL drivers.

    3. Disclaimer: By accident (is that a pun?) I happen to be married
    to the author of the article.

Comments are closed.