FAIRMONT - A new seat belt enforcement wave that begins today will focus on young drivers, with hopes of getting them in the good habit of buckling up every time they are in a vehicle.
"From my own observances, until recently it was hard to find a high school driver that was not wearing a seat belt," said Fairmont police officer Craig Fowler. "But just in the past week, I've noticed several that were not wearing seat belts. I don't know if it's just because it's spring or what, but we want them to get back into that good habit. I hope that with this wave, we can make that happen."
Fowler said that instead of the four main enforcement waves usually seen in the "Toward Zero Deaths" campaign, this year there will be more smaller waves. A second seat belt wave will be conducted later in spring.
While focusing on young drivers, another issue that will be addressed for all drivers this month is distracted driving, with one day of the wave dedicated to cracking down on distracted drivers. From 2009-2011, distracted or inattentive driving was a factor in one out of four crashes in Minnesota.
One of the biggest and most dangerous distractions is using a cell phone while driving. A University of Utah study concluded that using a phone while driving, either hands-free or hand-held, delays a driver's reaction time as much as having an alcohol-concentration level of .08, which is the legal limit in Minnesota.
"For those young drivers with provisional licenses, they are not supposed to be using a cell phone unless it is an emergency," Fowler said.
It is a misdemeanor to be texting while driving, whether composing and sending or reading a text.
"These 15- or 16-year-old kids, they have the texting down, but they don't have the car mastered," Fowler said.
If texting while driving, a driver takes his eyes off the road about 4.6 seconds out of every 6. It is the equivalent of traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking up.
"Using a cell phone while driving is actually more dangerous in a familiar area," Fowler said. "If you are in an unfamiliar area, you're more likely to be looking around, but in a route you travel from work to home every day, you're more likely to go on autopilot. A lot of people who use the phone, they get to where they're going and then realize, 'How did I get here?'"
But phones aren't the only distraction on the road. Simply looking away from the road or performing other tasks, such as attempting to read a map, eat, talk to someone in the vehicle, adjust the radio or being lost in thought can impair safe driving.
"Drivers need to make a serious effort to recognize and limit dangerous, unnecessary distractions," Fowler said.