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Distracted driving can claim lives

Last September, a head-on crash resulted in the death of 77-year-old Lucille Vogt of Parkers Prairie.

Kayla Carry of Browerville, the 18-year-old driver who reportedly crossed the centerline and hit Vogt's vehicle head-on, is now facing 10 years in prison for vehicular homicide.

The tragic part of it, according to the Minnesota State Patrol, is that it could have been avoided. After investigating the crash, it says distracted driving is to blame.

Carry, who is charged with operating her vehicle in a grossly negligent manner, allegedly sent or received 15 text messages in the minutes leading up to the crash. According to cell phone records obtained by the State Patrol, Carry sent an outgoing text message at 8:20 that morning - four minutes before the first 911 call came into the Otter Tail County Dispatch Center.

Distracted driving happens all too often in Minnesota. Statewide, distracted or inattentive driving is a factor in one in four crashes, and last year resulted in at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries, according to State Trooper Jesse Grabow.

Driving is difficult enough these days with all the icy patches and high snowbanks. The last thing drivers need to contend with is drivers who aren't paying enough attention to the road.

Our area is far from immune. The problem was common enough that the Douglas County Board proclaimed a "Distraction Free Driving Day" last summer.

Crystal Hoepner, Douglas County Safe Communities coordinator, notes that people just seem to forget how complex a task driving is. After driving the same routes day after day, drivers seem to get numb to the things around them. But, she added, driving should require us to be totally focused because the driving environment can change in an instant. "That's why we need to hang up the phone, stop fiddling with the radio, put down the burger and direct total attention to the road," she said.

Here are some quick and easy ways Douglas County Safe Communities suggests to minimize distractions to keep yourself - and all of us - safer on the roads:

• Put your cell phone out of reach or turn it off entirely to avoid the urge to reach for it. Stuff it in the glove box.

• Modify your voice mail greeting to indicate you are unavailable to answer calls or return messages while driving.

• If you have a passenger, have them handle calls/texts, change radio, adjust controls, help with navigation, etc.

• Passengers - speak up to stop drivers from unsafe distracting behaviors, and volunteer to help the driver by handling calls, changing music and adjusting controls.

• If you cannot avoid eating or drinking, at least avoid messy foods, and be sure food and drinks are secured.

• Teach children the importance of good behavior in the vehicle; do not underestimate how distracting it can be to tend to children in a vehicle. If they need additional attention, pull off the road safely to care for them.

• Remember the laws that are out there - it's illegal for drivers to read/compose/send texts and e-mails, and to access the Web while the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic. That includes at a stop light or when stuck in traffic. And, those younger than 18 can't use a cell phone at all when driving.

Today's guest editorial was written by the Echo Press of Alexandria. The Echo Press and Wadena Pioneer Journal are both Forum Communications newspapers.