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Law enforcement agencies caution against distracted driving

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Officer Tony Gust of the New Hope Police Department shares his story.
Officer Tony Gust of the New Hope Police Department shares his story of a collision at the intersection of Boone and 42nd Avenue N, in New Hope, Minn., Oct. 9, 2018. The crash occurred on Aug 6, 2018.
Gabriel Kwan | MPR News

For Officer Tony Gust of New Hope Police Department, the August afternoon when a car plowed sideways into his vehicle was measured in moments.

"At the time, all I could think about was kind of getting into law enforcement mode of responding to an accident," Gust said.

Dash cam footage from Gust's partner, Officer Todd Black, showed Gust immediately going over to Danielle Swart moments after her vehicle crashed into his police SUV, spinning it around 180 degrees.

In a miraculous turn of events, neither Gust nor Swart sustained serious injuries.

"And once I was able to determine that she was okay, and did not require immediate medical attention, I was able to kind of relax for a moment, take a breath and fully set in the realization that I was involved in this accident too," he said.

It's been two months since that accident at a quiet intersection in New Hope, but Gust thinks that a moment was all it took for a potentially fatal crash to occur: at the time of the accident, Swart was looking down to grab a drink and ran a red light into the side of Gust's vehicle.

"I thought that she appeared to be slowing down, and just in the time I went to glance back to my right again, she was already upon my vehicle to the point where there was no time to even react," he said.

He told his story at a press conference hosted by the Department of Public Safety on Tuesday morning, with one important message: don't drive distracted.

According to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, distracted or inattentive driving contributes to one in five crashes in Minnesota. Within that category, texting stands out among a throng of distractions for drivers, with citations for texting while driving increasing by over 300 percent over the last 5 years.

The result? An average of 53 deaths and 223 life-altering injuries each year, for something authorities claim to be completely avoidable using nothing more than common sense.

"These do not need to happen. We shouldn't need laws to regulate common-sense behavior behind the wheel," said Mike Hanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety in the Department of Public Safety.

To hammer that point home, the Department of Public Safety is teaming up with the Dakota County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies for a 4-hour enforcement drive on Wednesday morning.

"We will be focusing 100 percent of our attention on people not paying attention to the roadway," said Sergeant Matt Schuster of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.

Schuster added that while drivers need to take responsibility for their actions behind the wheel, passengers can also help make driving easier and safer by volunteering for miscellaneous tasks.

"If you're a passenger in a car, offer to be that person's texter, be their DJ, be their navigator, something that's gonna allow that driver to pay better attention to the roadway," he said.

Closing his speech at the press conference, director Hanson held up a phone and said, "this is not more important than the life of the people you're sharing the roadway with. Put it away, and pay attention. Drivers need to be responsible for what takes place in their vehicles. Passengers need to help that driver pay attention and make those good decisions."