Campaign canceled, but no time off for distracted driving enforcement

Campaign canceled, but no time off for distracted driving enforcement

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many cancellations, including National Distracted Driving Awareness month, which was to start Wednesday.

For the past decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has used April to educate Americans about the dangers of distracted driving and teamed with states and local police to carry out enforcement campaigns. Not this year.

“In order for states to prioritize the public health response, NHTSA has postponed the distracted driving extra enforcement campaigns,” said the agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The National Safety Council has also postponed its Distracted Driving Awareness Month activities. Neither organization has said whether the campaigns will be rescheduled.

Still, enforcement is not taking time off, said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.

“Officers, deputies and troopers will continue keeping our roads safe by enforcing all traffic laws, including distracted driving and hands-free,” Hanson said. “While roads are less congested as people stay home due to COVID-19 concerns, it’s still important to drive safely.”

Distracted driving was a contributing factor in crashes resulting in more than 3,900 injuries and 29 deaths in Minnesota in 2018, according to the DPS.

State legislators last year made it illegal for motorists in Minnesota to have a cellphone or other electronic device in their hand while at the wheel. Tickets come with a fine of $50 for the first offense and $275 for each subsequent violation. Court costs can push the total higher.

Minnesota has the 10th toughest distracted driving laws in the country, according to Siegfried and Jensen, a Utah personal injury law firm that analyzed laws in all 50 states. The firm looked at which states banned activities such as texting while driving, phone use by school bus drivers and holding devices. It also examined minimum fines and used NHTSA data to calculate injury and fatality rates from crashes attributed to distracted driving to rank each state.

Rhode Island was deemed to have the nation’s toughest laws, followed by Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and Illinois. The weakest laws were in Alabama, South Carolina, Montana, Texas and Missouri. Utah had the highest fine for first offenses at $750, the study released last week said.

“There is a steep falloff between states that are taking it [distracted driving] seriously and those that are not,” said Jeremy Hendricks, marketing director for the Salt Lake City-based law firm. “It’s still a huge cause of accidents.”

Drive reader Erich has license tabs expiring in March and wonders whether he can get an extension.

Extensions are not being granted right now. That’s because granting extensions for vehicle tabs and registrations requires a change to state law, said Megan Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Department of Vehicle Services.

With most DVS offices closed, ordering them at drive.mn.gov might be the best option.

“Your vehicle record is updated immediately to reflect that you have renewed your registration,” Leonard said. “You receive a receipt at the end of the online renewal process that you can print and carry as proof of renewal.”

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.