By Dan Nienaber
---- — MAPLETON — Kris Madsen wasn't too surprised when a survey of students at Maple River High School showed most of them admitted to reading texts, talking on their cellphones, eating or doing other unsafe things while driving.
Madsen, a social worker at the school, has caught herself being distracted behind the wheel.
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She was listening to the radio while driving to work one morning. A local broadcaster was talking about how she had received a phone call from someone who had just passed a woman on Highway 14. The woman was driving while putting on her makeup, the caller said.
"Guess what I was doing when I heard that," Madsen said. "I was putting on my lipstick."
Madsen, Maple River Principal Todd Griepentrog, Department of Transportation officials and several local law enforcement officers gathered outside the school Monday to teach students about the dangers of distracted driving. The students, driving golf carts, were asked to write a text saying what they had for breakfast, where they had it and when they ate.
"I was only able to text 'cereal' and 'home' before I got to the end," said Noah Lindsey, a junior who recently received his driving permit. "I wasn't sure where I was going and I couldn't see where I was going. It makes it a lot more dangerous on the road."
Law enforcement officers also used the event to announce a 10-day enforcement campaign that will start Friday and last through April 20. Officers will be riding in maintenance vehicles and watching for distracted drivers. When they see someone who is breaking the law by texting or doing something else dangerous, they will call another officer in a squad car so the driver can be stopped and cited.
Driving while distracted is the leading cause of crashes in Minnesota and the Mankato area, said Tom Coulter, Blue Earth County deputy. He's either seen or heard about people who have crashed while texting, eating, talking to their kids in the back seat and changing the disc in their compact disc players.
The worst case of distracted driving he has dealt with is someone who was using a laptop and jotting down notes while on the road. That man didn't crash, but he did get a lecture after Coulter found him at his office. He told Coulter he learned his lesson.
"The thing is the Department of Transportation drivers are seeing these violations all the time," Coulter said. "They keep telling us, 'Come ride along with us and you'll see.' So that's exactly what we're going to do."
Another aspect of Monday's event is a pledge Maple River students are being asked to sign that says they won't text and drive, said Annette Larson, the Toward Zero Deaths coordinator for the Department of Transportation's Mankato district. Toward Zero Deaths is a statewide effort to reduce the number of deadly crashes in Minnesota.
Seniors and juniors will be competing to get the most pledges from other students and adults. Larson said she is hoping the competition will help spread the word to future drivers as well as people with many years of driving experience.
Distracted driving kills, on average, eight people per day in the United States, said Mark Griffith, Emergency Medical Services director for south-central Minnesota. People ages 16-50 are most likely to be driving while distracted. Statistics show the reaction time of someone who sends texts while driving is the same as the reaction time of someone with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08, the legal limit for driving, he said.
"This is an everybody problem," Griffith said. "The surprising thing is most drivers rate themselves as above average when driving while distracted."
The statistics from the students who took the golf cart challenge Monday showed otherwise. They consistently had a 25-30 percent decrease in their reaction times when they were attempting to text while driving. That's consistent with nationwide statistics, Griffith said.
A wise choice for all drivers is to turn the cellphone off, and put the lipstick down, while driving, Madsen said. She admits that's a difficult message to get across to young people who have a lot going on in their lives and have the teenage habit of thinking bad things won't happen to them.
"They have enough distractions in life," she said. "They need to learn to turn off the phone and concentrate on driving."
Madsen is planning to have students take another survey after the pledge drive is over. She's hoping it will show fewer kids are still driving while distracted.