National Distracted Driving Awareness month observances took place in April.
In its crash facts, the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) noted the fatality count in 2021 to be the highest since 2007, when we lost 510 in Minnesota.
As of May 10, the state has already counted 94 traffic deaths.
In 2009, Ray LaHood, then U.S. secretary of transportation, likened distracted driving behavior to “an epidemic.” This epidemic is not confined to the U.S.
This problem is not confined to Minnesota. Distracted and unsafe driving behaviors are prevalent the world over. Advocacy groups are struggling to combat this epidemic in many countries.
A powerful story of advocacy from India is worth noting here.
It all started with a celebration, as reported on the front page of The Times of India, dated March 31, 2014.
Six students from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-Delhi) were on a road trip to celebrate their placements at top companies. As luck would have it, one of the tires of their SUV burst, rolling over the car several times before coming to a halt in a ditch.
The crash took the lives of four of the passengers. They were unbelted.
Two survived the crash. They wore seat belts.
To memorialize their lost friends, IIT-Delhi students started the Indian Road Safety Campaign (IRSC) to raise awareness about safe driving practices. In eight years, IRSC has become the largest youth-led organization in India. It boasts 40,000 members in 500 colleges across India.
IRSC is now working with the United Nations Partnership Platform to support its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), calling for a 50% reduction between 2015-30. Additionally, India’s government and a number of corporations came forward to lend support to the cause of safe driving in the country.
Here in the U.S., EPLN sought to gain a broader perspective on seat belt issues and traffic safety by reaching out to state and local law enforcement officials.
Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, finds it frustrating to see people killed or seriously injured due to a lack of seat belt use. Although seat belt compliance is hovering in the low nineties in Minnesota, Langer would like it to be 100%.
What has been troubling is the continuation of behavior prevalent during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety reported that non-compliance of laws targeting impaired, unbelted and speeding drivers lead to serious distracted driving behaviors.
Enforcement also has suffered in the past few years. Langer explained that recently COVID-19 and controversies related to traffic stops around the country have converged. This created a situation of far less traffic enforcement, a trend that concerns him.
Langer also noted fewer opportunities for community and law enforcement to be engaged on traffic safety issues during the COVID-19 crisis.
He hopes that will change over the summer.
On the local front, Eden Prairie Police Chief Matt Sackett chimed in with Langer regarding the seat belt use in the state.
“Seat belt usage is actually quite high in Eden Prairie,” Sackett said. “But when people don’t wear them, the consequences can be very grave, like the story from India.”
Referring to the recent observance of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Sackett said, “we’re out there looking for violators every day.”
He said the Eden Prairie Police Department is fully engaged on this issue throughout the year. It proactively puts out blogs reminding people about driver safety. He and his staff also regularly give talks at public events.
The chief also noted that some drivers have become emboldened to go that much faster. He said they seem to believe “they could do it during the height of the pandemic, why not continue to carry on with the unsafe driving practice?”
Sackett also attributed such behaviors to drugs, alcohol, speeding, and not wearing seat belts. All that brings additional challenges for the department.
“They just run from the police,” Langer said. “That’s why you see police chases, up a lot more. That does not lend itself well to lawful societies.”
Editor’s note: During recent travels abroad, Vijay Dixit met with academicians, researchers, business leaders and social advocates in India and Dubai.
Over the next several weeks, Dixit will chronicle his travels with stories covering safety, education, environment, health and advocacy with a foreign flavor.
Dixit is the chairman of Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation, a 501-c-3 nonprofit advocating distraction-free driving. He is also a board member of Eden Prairie Local News and a member of the EPLN Development Committee and journalism team.