Distracted driving crackdown in Minnesota reveals bad habits

Distracted driving
A man used his cell phone as he drove through traffic in this Feb. 26, 2013 file photo.
LM Otero | AP 2013

It turns out that texting while driving isn't the only thing that distracts Minnesota drivers.

Law enforcement officers across the state this week ramped up enforcement against all sorts of distracted driving. They reported pulling over drivers who were working on advanced math problems, painting their fingernails or even playing video games.

56YOF pulled over in Hopkins this AM for painting her nails behind the wheel. With a distracted driver? Tell them to stop. #SpeakUpMN

— MN State Patrol (@MnDPS_MSP) April 13, 2015

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety estimates that distracted driving could be responsible for about one-quarter of all vehicle crashes and more than 60 traffic deaths per year in the state.

Many of the crashes are due to texting while driving, which is explicitly against the law in the state, said Minnesota State Patrol spokesperson Lt. Tiffani Nielson. But officers have also been targeting motorists who display just plain dangerous driving behaviors like swerving, not signaling during lane changes or driving at erratic speeds.

Trooper pulled over 33YOF eating ice cream cone. Keep your hands on the wheel & #SpeakUpMN if you see a distracted driver.

— MN State Patrol (@MnDPS_MSP) April 14, 2015

Nielson said officers have found that many people they pull over for driving dangerously are doing so because they're also distracted.

"If you're driving your vehicle, you need to be focused on the road," Nielson said. "There are hazards all around you while you're driving, other vehicles, things that come out into the lane — animals, children, bicyclists — they are all things that are out there."

The heightened enforcement drew some ridicule from social media accounts after a post by the Minnesota State Patrol about a man who was eating ice cream and driving. Nielson said the driver wasn't pulled over for eating ice cream, but because he was driving in a way that could lead to crashes.

@xtina1229 I got pulled over for sneezing. Cop said I need to keep my eye open while driving #SpeakUpMN #ItMightHappen

— Andrew S (@air92503) April 14, 2015

"In that particular stop, the driver was speeding and entered a speed change or speed reduction zone and didn't even notice," Nielson said. "That's when the trooper stopped the vehicle and found that the driver was eating. So there's some level of distraction in that the driver hadn't noticed that the speed limit had changed."

Public safety officials said drivers can avoid a crash by putting off an activity until their vehicle is safely parked.

"The inconvenience [a crash] causes over something that could have waited, or didn't need to happen at that time, is a large risk versus reward decision," Nielson said.

The campaign against distracted driving involves Minnesota State Patrol troopers and more than 300 law enforcement agencies across the country. It's partly funded by a federal initiative.

Although the heightened enforcement of distracted driving behaviors officially ends on Saturday, law enforcement officers enforce the laws around distracted or dangerous driving year round. The total number of citations or warnings issued this week for distracted driving will be available sometime next week.