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Published April 21, 2011, 07:11 PM

MN Law Enforcement Cracks Down on Distracted Drivers

Minnesota State Trooper Tim Koehler's seen it all. Recently, a naked driver reading the bible almost hit one of his coworkers. Last summer, he pulled over a guy who had rigged up a television set so he could watch TV while driving.

By: Tara Bannow, Associated Press

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota State Trooper Tim Koehler's seen it all. Recently, a naked driver reading the bible almost hit one of his coworkers. Last summer, he pulled over a guy who had rigged up a television set so he could watch TV while driving.

"We see all extremes of behaviors by motorists," Koehler said.

Law enforcement officers from about 400 Minnesota agencies worked overtime Thursday to catch distracted drivers and make sure they got the message: pay attention.

"It's really a plea to the public to think about what's important while you're driving and limit those things that you can limit," said State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske.

Distracted driving is a leading cause of crashes in Minnesota, accounting for about 20 percent annually, but the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said the number of traffic accidents caused by distracted driving is seriously underreported.

Although inattentive driving can be a ticket in itself, it usually isn't proven unless an accident occurs, Roeske said. A more common ticket is for texting while driving or seatbelt violations. But people who swerve between lanes or speed often weren't paying attention, he said.

"I can't tell you how many times I've stopped a person for a violation and they didn't realize they did it," Roeske said.

A $105,000 federal grant paid for 2,500 additional enforcement hours for Thursday's crackdown. A statewide tally for citations issued Thursday wasn't kept.

About five hours into his shift, Koehler had accumulated a stack of about 13 tickets. He's been in law enforcement for 20 years now, and said distracted driving's gotten a lot worse since he started.

"It's becoming more and more of an issue," he said. The vast majority of offenders Koehler sees are people age 35 and younger; many of them still have their provisional licenses.

Koehler said he pulled over a young woman from North Dakota the other day when he saw her driving — with her head down and "thumbs going" as she texted on her cell phone.

"It was more important for her to get a text out to who she was communicating with than focusing on her driving," he said.

The subject got more attention this week when a 20-year-old Eden Prairie woman with two young children in the car seriously injured a motorcyclist after hitting him head-on. She was texting and the victim claims she did not look up. The woman faces a felony and other less serious charges.

It's not just texting, either. Now that people have the Internet on their phones, searching Google or finding a song to play becomes an issue too, Koehler said.

Solving the problem is simple, Koehler said. It amounts to putting away the electronic device, setting down the coffee, putting down the book or applying makeup before leaving for work.

Often, people are just trying to do too much at once.

When Koehler spotted a driver talking on his cell phone and failing to signal before moving into the left lane, he quickly sped up and pulled the man over.

"You probably don't have enough hands to run the steering wheel, the turn signal and be on the phone at the same time," Koehler said to the man, who sheepishly agreed. Koehler let him off with a warning.

A woman in a minivan across the median from Koehler's patrol car also caught his eye. He pointed at her and noted she was on the phone, trying to merge into traffic and had a piece of paper in her right hand.

"See her fumbling with the wheel; she's not completely focused on her driving," Koehler said, as he watched her pull out in the opposite direction. "I can't get everybody I see."

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