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Authorities tackling 'epidemic' of texting while driving

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Like a siren's song, the alluring hum of a cellphone can often be too much for a driver to resist.

Although 95 percent of people realize the danger of text messaging from behind the wheel, 35 percent admitted to sending or reading a message while on the road in the last month, according to a 2011 AAA survey.

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The Minnesota Department of Public Safety is holding a distracted driving campaign this week aimed at increasing education on the issue.

It will include increased patrols today by over 400 law enforcement agencies statewide with a critical eye on distracted driving laws.

While distracted driving can come in many forms from eating and drinking to finding a radio station, texting has become the biggest culprit.

Minnesota enacted a no texting while driving law in August 2008. Grand Forks had a texting and driving ban in place in September 2010, but it wasn't until August 2011 when North Dakota enacted its own law.

Sgt. Jesse Grabow, public information trooper from the Detroit Lakes, Minn., State Patrol office, said distracted driving is "an epidemic plaguing our highways" that is now the leading factor in 25 percent of accidents in the state.

But until it becomes socially unacceptable, he said it will continue to be a problem.

"People have become so accustomed to that instant gratification of getting a message or responding to one," he said. "Driving a vehicle is not something you want to multitask with. People understand it, you can say it's unacceptable, but people are still doing it. People don't intend to do bad things, but bad things can still come from it."

Active campaign

The campaign to reduce distracted driving, especially texting, will need to be multi-faceted, according to AAA spokesman Gene LaDoucer.

"It's going to take well-written laws, high-visibility enforcement, public education and outreach, and research," he said.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that prohibit texting and driving.

According to the AAA, distracted driving contributes to 8,000 crashes a day nationwide. LaDoucer pointed to seatbelt laws as a model for the distracted driving campaign to follow.

"Seatbelt use was at 14 percent when laws were initially enacted," he said. "We now have a national seatbelt use rate close to 85 percent. These laws, when you put them in place, you won't see immediate changes by drivers. But through time, people take it upon themselves."

The fine for texting and driving in North Dakota is $100, and it ranges between $115 and $130 in Minnesota. Both states also have laws against drivers under 18 using cellphones at all in moving vehicles.

While tech-savvy youngsters can be the biggest distracted driving offenders, Lt. Jody Skogen with the North Dakota Highway Patrol said sometimes experienced drivers believe they can safely multitask behind the wheel.

"I see all ages driving around with cell devices in their hands," said Skogen, a safety and education officer. "It doesn't matter the age of the driver. If you're texting, you aren't paying attention to what you're doing."

Grabow said it's important for the older generation of drivers to set the example.

"It's like wearing a seatbelt," he said. "If your kid sees you do it, they will, too. Until we can understand that texting and driving is socially unacceptable, much like drinking and driving, it's going to continue."

Tough to enforce

Texting and driving can be one of the toughest traffic violations to identify, according to Skogen.

"We can determine that they failed to yield, but what caused them to fail to yield is up to them to admit," he said.

Minnesota authorities have continued to issue more citations every year since the law was enacted.

From 2009 to 2010, the first full year with the law on the books, citations went up 76 percent. From 2010 to 2011, the increase was 51 percent.

Grabow said the identifying traits of distracted driving can be a lot like drunk driving.

"They're very similar," he said. "Swerving, crossing the center line, slowing down and speeding up."

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, when texting, drivers take their eyes off the road for up to 4.6 out of every 6 seconds -- equivalent to traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking up.

"It's been equated to being an impaired driver as far as reaction time," Grand Forks Police Lt. Grant Schiller said. "Your eyes are off the road."

Leaving behind an interactive lifestyle is not easy to do, according to LaDoucer.

A 2011 AAA survey said 54 percent of people admitted to regularly reading texts or emails at red lights and 35 percent send messages under the same circumstances.

"Getting in the automobile, it's tough to turn that off when you've been doing it all day," LaDoucer said. "People find it very difficult to disconnect, but you have to realize it's putting people at risk."

Reach Bieri at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send email to cbieri@gfherald.com.

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