By Dan Nienaber
---- — MANKATO — Officer Jay Link has been patrolling the streets and highways running through St. Peter for three years now and he's no longer surprised by the ways drivers find to distract themselves as they're rolling a few tons of potentially deadly metal through town.
It's not uncommon to see young drivers using their hands to both text and steer as they're rolling down the road. It's less common, but not unheard of, to see people tapping away at their laptop computers while driving, Link said. He's even pulled drivers over for reading a book.
"Distracted driving is definitely a problem," Link said. "I'd say it's getting right up there with impaired driving."
Link was one of several area law enforcement officers at the Mankato Regional Airport on Tuesday for state Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman's announcement that south-central Minnesota will get nearly $450,000 in traffic safety grants. Of that money, the Blue Earth County Coalition for the state's Toward Zero Death campaign will receive about $265,000, said Blue Earth County sheriff's deputy Tom Coulter, coalition grant coordinator.
That amount is about $100,000 more than the coalition received last year, Coulter said. A reason for the increase is Blue Earth County has returned to the list of top 25 counties for alcohol-related crashes. The coalition also includes sheriff's departments in Nicollet and Le Sueur counties and police departments from communities in all three counties.
Blue Earth County has been off that list for awhile. As a result of the change, and the increase in grant funding, drivers can expect to see more squad cars on the road during drunken-driving saturation patrols during the next year, Coulter said. The grant money is used to pay overtime for deputies, police officers and state troopers to work those patrols.
The first saturation is coming soon, starting the night before Thanksgiving. That tends to be a busy night for drunken-driving enforcement because friends and families are gathering and most people don't have to work during the holiday, Coulter said. That saturation will continue during every weekend through the weekend after Christmas.
Drunken driving is still the major concern, so most of the grant money will go toward drunken-driving patrols. The Toward Zero Death campaign focuses on all of the things that factor into deadly crashes, including highway designs.
Statewide, deadly traffic crashes had been decreasing annually. That changed last year, Dohman said.
"More people died on Minnesota roads in 2012 than the year before and, unfortunately, we are on pace to match that number in 2013," she said. "Our local partners are a critical part of the efforts to reverse this trend and make our roads safer."
Those numbers could easily improve if people quit drinking and driving, paid attention on the road and wore seat belts, Dohman said. Of the 398 traffic deaths in south-central Minnesota from 2003 to 2012, 156 involved people who were not wearing seat belts. There were 88 deaths involving drunken drivers. The good news is, even with the recent increase, traffic deaths have decreased nearly 30 percent during that same period.