June 14, 2017

It’s been 14 years since officials implanted an initiative to reduce Minnesota distracted driving accidents and resulting deaths. “Toward Zero Deaths”—the name of the initiative—doesn’t just aim to reduce distracted driving deaths, it aims to eliminate them entirely.

Although it has had some success, officials are now concerned that progress has plateaued, and new distractions are taking over from older ones.

Fewer Distracted Driving Deaths than 14 Years Ago

Since it was enacted, Toward Zero Deaths has had an impact on the number of distracted driving deaths. In the years prior to its implementation, Minnesota saw an average of more than 600 traffic deaths each year. More recently, the five-year average has dropped to fewer than 400 deaths per year.

Nationally, in 2015 more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving accidents while almost 400,000 were injured.

But officials are concerned that new distractions and hazards could once again increase the number of distracted driving accidents. The number of drug-impaired drivers has increased and drivers are still committed to texting while on the road. To discourage distracted driving, Minnesota has doubled the fines distracted drivers must pay for a second offense.

According to Minnesota’s Office of Traffic Safety, each year distracted driving is a factor in one-quarter of all crashes and causes at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries. Perhaps more alarming is that those numbers could be artificially low because distracted driving is a difficult factor to determine in crashes.

There could be many more accidents caused by distracted driving than reported, increasing the number of deaths and serious injuries.

Among the most common distractions that lead to inattentive driving and crashes are, talking on phones (including talking while on hands-free devices), texting, adjusting vehicle controls (including music and air conditioning), eating and drinking, reading, and driving tired.

Minnesota’s No Texting While Driving Law

In an effort to reduce the number of distracted driving accidents, Minnesota has enacted a “No Texting while Driving” law that makes it illegal for drivers to in any way be involved in texting—including reading, composing or sending a text message or email, or accessing the internet from a wireless device—while the vehicle is in traffic. Even reading a text at a red light is illegal under the law.

Furthermore, teen drivers who have a permit or provisional license are prohibited from using cell phones for any purpose.

Distracted Driving Lawsuits

While officials implement initiatives to combat distracted driving, family members of people who have died in traffic accidents have filed their own distracted driving lawsuits. While the lawsuits won’t bring their loved ones back, they may discourage others from driving while distracted.

One lawsuit was filed by the family of David Riggs, a 20-year-old from Minnesota who was killed in 2013 when his scooter was hit by a teenager who was texting on his iPhone. A lawsuit was filed against Apple, alleging the company should have installed technology to prevent drivers from using their phones while in traffic.

“There is no technical reason for why these things aren’t available at this point,” Douglas Schmidt, a Vanderbilt University computer science professor, told San Francisco Chronicle.

The lawsuit was tentatively dismissed by a judge, which is not a final decision but indicates the judge will likely side with Apple. For its part, though, Apple indicated in a patent document that law enforcement alone likely cannot eliminate texting while driving.

“Texting while driving has become so widespread it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice,” the company wrote.

That skepticism, though, isn’t stopping officials in Minnesota from trying.