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Distracted driving is as dangerous as driving drunk

From texting to putting on makeup, from eating to reading, area police chiefs have seen it all when it comes to distracted driving. "Studies have shown that it is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drunk driving," Breezy Point police chief...

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“Studies have shown that it is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drunk driving,” Breezy Point police chief Kevin Merschman said. “When you are not paying attention to the road, bad things happen.” Pineandlakes.com Illustration

From texting to putting on makeup, from eating to reading, area police chiefs have seen it all when it comes to distracted driving.

“Studies have shown that it is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drunk driving,” Breezy Point police chief Kevin Merschman said. “When you are not paying attention to the road, bad things happen.”

Starting earlier this week, area law enforcement officers began conducting overtime patrols in an effort to reduce distracted driving. The campaign will run through Sunday, April 17.

“We see a lot,” Nisswa police chief Craig Taylor said of distracted driving. “A lot of people we encounter on the road, especially the four-lane road, are staring down in their lap, sometimes even to the point where you can see a phone.”

Pequot Lakes police chief Eric Klang said texting and driving is the main type of distracted driving officers encounter.

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“And we see it on a regular basis,” he said. “I really don’t see it going away any time soon.”

However, when it comes to texting, distracted driving is not so easy to prove. It's often difficult for officers to know if that person looking down is reading/composing a text or dialing a phone, Taylor said.

“They can make phone calls and you can receive phone calls,” he said, noting the law clearly allows that.

But while it is illegal to compose, send or read text messages while driving, an officer can't pull someone over and demand to see a phone without a search warrant.

“If I'm going to go testify in court, I want to be able to articulate what I saw,” Pine River police chief Paul Sand said about ticketing difficulties. “The distracted part, a lot of times, that's what we see. The calls once in awhile are for a careless driver or they think they are all over the road. Sometimes we follow that car and they are digging for something. I'm sure you've done it before where you've reached down to do something and your arm turns the wheel as your body goes.”

Crosslake police chief Bob Hartman also noted that is illegal for any driver under age 18 to use their phones at all while driving - even when using a hands-free device - unless they are calling 911.

“Cell phones have become such a big issue with everyone,” Sand said. “Everyone has one. A lot of these young drivers are just learning to operate a vehicle and if you imagine what it was like (when) you were learning to drive and it took a while to get used to that. Now you have kids that think they can text, drive, talk on the phone and they can't do all that. I wish parents were more apt to sit down and discuss those things.”

In the event of a crash involving a serious injury or death, Merschman said officers can go through a “time-consuming” process of investigating whether the driver at fault was distracted with a mobile device after obtaining subpoenas and search warrants to analyze a device.

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“Your phone is a ‘black box’ and it records everything you do,” Merschman said. “When it is necessary, it can be opened up and clearly shown that people were on their devices. With minor accidents, it doesn’t pay to go to that extent.”

Taylor and Klang agreed the best way to find drivers who are texting is to pull up next to motorists at stoplights in an unmarked vehicle. It's not like speeding, where an officer clocks a driver, Taylor said. Rather, an officer has to observe the person for a period of time to determine whether he or she is, indeed, texting.

“A lot of people are aware texting is illegal, but they're so accustomed to doing it that it doesn't occur to them that they're breaking the law,” Taylor said.

He said other than DUIs and high speeds, texting or using a cell phone is one of the most dangerous things a driver can do.

Merschman said Breezy Point officers also use unmarked vehicles - particularly SUVs with one officer driving and one in the passenger seat - to observe drivers on their devices.

“You sit up a little higher and you can look right in,” he said. “We will have an officer driving and an officer riding, and the passenger officer has the ability to be the spotter. Literally, we have taken photos of people on their devices as they drive by.”

Taylor and Klang each shared personal stories relating to distracted driving. On his way home from a hunting trip, Taylor and his friend saw a weaving car traveling from Bemidji. When it got to Nisswa, Taylor called to have an officer check on the driver. They discovered he was doing homework while driving.

Klang said his wife was involved in a crash when another driver went past flashing yellow lights that warned the stoplight would turn red, and drove past a police car through the red light and struck another vehicle. That vehicle then hit Klang’s wife’s vehicle.

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The offending driver was texting, he said.

He cited another instance where a woman was texting and crossed the centerline of two-lane Highway 371 and sideswiped a vehicle, ripping both vehicles and taking her front wheel off.

“All because she's looking down at her phone. That could have been a lot worse,” he said, noting these instances show how unfocused the drivers were because they were texting.

Other distractions include fiddling with electronic equipment or GPS devices in the car, or even being sleep deprived, emotionally fatigued or on prescribed medications.

“I have seen women putting makeup on with their rearview mirror down or visor flipped down,” Hartman said. “That is kind of scary, because they can be using two hands for that. I have heard of people being pulled over for smoking a cigarette. That would be an extreme case that I have heard of.”

Busy people attempting to work in the car can also be an issue.

“Believe it or not you have people who are sales reps and other folks going somewhere where they have piles of things in their car and they are driving and looking at their files as they go,” Sand said.

Sand also pointed out that tending to children in a back seat can be distracting.

The Breezy Point Police Department recently cited a driver for watching a movie on a tablet while behind the wheel, and the chief warned of the dangers of driving with a pet in the front seat, especially small dogs in the laps of drivers.

“All drivers on the road have a responsibility to play a part in safety,” Merschman said. “When you are driving 60 mph down the road, you have to have some faith the person you are meeting head-on is paying attention to what they are doing.”

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