MN sees rise in distracted drivers

by Brian Edwards

Using pedals, wheels and phones, participants in a virtual driving game are helping Minnesota officials understand distracted driving.
In light of the rising number of Minnesotans who are texting and driving, a University of Minnesota researcher is conducting a study to provide new information on the dangers of distracted driving. The research could help state and law enforcement officials as they further campaigns to keep drivers focused.
Last month, law enforcement officials gave out 909 tickets for distracted driving in a six-day period as part of a prevention campaign led by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Minnesota State Patrol. That number was almost double the one gathered during a 10-day campaign the 
previous year.
Edward Downs, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the Duluth campus, is completing the distracted driving research. He said many people don’t believe that they are a danger to others on the road when they are texting and driving.
Downs created the driving simulation in 2012. The test requires drivers to try to multitask while they’re driving. One group of participants was asked to either text or talk while driving, and the other drove without distractions.
He said the participants who texted during the virtual driving game were more likely to crash or swerve out of their lanes. Those who were talking on their phones had trouble maintaining a constant speed.
Tests were administered at the beginning and end of the simulations to measure the change in drivers’ perceptions.
The research was published last year, and it showed a significant attitude shift away from texting and driving, Downs said. He said the simulation is more effective than traditional methods that aim to prevent people from driving while distracted.
“It is a much stronger experience than just pointing a finger at people and telling them they shouldn’t do it,” he said.
Lt. Tiffani Nielson, a public information officer for the Minnesota State Patrol, said the rise in tickets this year during the campaigns was the result of more people driving while using their phones and officers becoming better at spotting distracted drivers.
More than 3,000 people died in 2011 as a result of distracted driving, according to a 2013 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.
Nielson said law enforcement agencies are trying to change drivers’ attitudes through different safety programs, but the effort will take years.
He said shifting the public’s perception of texting and driving to match the severity of its thoughts on driving while drunk is key for making lasting changes.
“We can continue to write tickets and enforce, but there are about 5.5 million people in Minnesota,” Nielson said. “I don’t think it’s possible to enforce our way out of the problem.”