Editorial: Education is needed to sharpen driving attention

Published 9:49 am Thursday, February 16, 2017

Although an imperfect solution, a bill being considered at the Minnesota Legislature that would ban hand-held cellphones brings to the light how big a concern distracted driving has become — and should be.

The proposed ban on hand-held cellphone use by drivers is meant to get them to pay more attention to driving and less to making calls, picking up calls and messing with other phone functions.

Clearly, until vehicles safely drive themselves, drivers need to pay less attention to mobile phones — and everything else that steals their attention from the road. Inattentive driving citations issued by the State Patrol, which include cellphone use and texting, grew from 4,659 citations in 2014 to 9,636 citations in 2016.

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Traveling straight while a driver with a phone to his ear is attempting to make a left-hand turn is a nerve-racking experience — a traffic game of chicken sometimes. Not proven, however, is that the proposed law would effectively tackle the distracted driving problem.

Some experts say freeing up the hands isn’t the issue, which is clear to anyone who has driven a stick shift or quickly changed the car radio channel without mishap. Instead they say it’s the brain that needs to be freed up. That would mean no long conversations during rush hour, no eating, no online banking.

Texting, emailing and internet surfing while driving are already illegal in Minnesota.

How could you legislate everything you logically shouldn’t be doing in a moving vehicle?

All of the behaviors fall under distracted driving laws if they impede the driver’s performance and are already a punishable offense if law enforcement cites you. Lawmakers may want to take a closer look at increasing fines for distracted driving. Right now first offenders only pay a $50 fine and second-timers $250.

There should also be some concern that those who can’t afford hands-free devices will be singled out to be stopped more than those who have the newer, more expensive technology in their vehicles.

The proposed hands-free bill is well-intended and obviously brings to the forefront the need for much more education about the importance of eliminating distracted driving. Public information campaigns have trained many of us to fasten seat belts and not drink and drive.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous and will be for a very long time. It’s unlikely people will detach themselves from their use, even while driving. But constant and imaginative public education about the dangers of distracted driving can play a role in helping drivers make better choices.

—Mankato Free Press, Feb. 12