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County cracks down on distracted driving

Dakota County law enforcement officers are handing out CELLslips to people caught texting behind the wheel as part of a county-wide crackdown on distracted driving April 10-23. The nylon sleeve blocks incoming signals from reaching the phone inside. Jennifer Steichen / Independent Town Pages

Dakota County law enforcement officials want drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

In conjunction with April's designation as Distracted Driver Awareness Month, a county-wide effort is underway to provide extra enforcement targeting distracted drivers from April 10-23.

In addition to placing extra patrols on the road, the campaign has officers teaming up with AAA - The Auto Club Group to distribute nylon phone sleeves to younger, more inexperienced drivers and drivers who are issued citations or warnings for their behavior.

The bright red pouches, called CELLslips, are designed to block the incoming signal from a mobile phone placed inside. The idea, said AAA public affairs director Gail Weinholzer, is to eliminate the distracting ping cellphones make when a new message arrives. If there is no ping, there is no temptation for drivers to take their eyes off the road.

"For me, the goal of reducing the temptation to text and drive is one of the greatest challenges that society faces collectively to decrease the chance of death or serious injuries to our youngest drivers," Weinholzer said in a news release.

In Minnesota, it is against the law for drivers to compose, read or send electronic messages while their vehicle is in motion or part of traffic. This includes emails, text messages and requests to access the internet. It also includes any messages sent or received while sitting at a stoplight or stop sign.

Dakota County sheriff's deputy Michael Vai said when he is on patrol, he looks for people whose eyes are looking down at stoplights, a strong indication they are reading something on their phone.

Vai, who once cited a driver for watching a movie on his cellphone while driving 85 mph down Highway 52 at night, said glowing faces after dark often give away people who are texting and driving. He said rearview mirrors can also work against drivers who are trying to be sneaky about their cell phone use.

"Their own equipment works against them," Vai said.

The extra enforcement campaign, coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety, was designed not only to combat distracted driving, but also to educate drivers about the dangers associated with it.

According to statistics compiled by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, distracted driving contributed to 7,666 injuries and 74 deaths in 2015. Minnesota law enforcement officers issued 5,988 citations for texting and driving last year, compared to only 1,707 in 2012.

In Minnesota, drivers cited for texting while driving face a fine of $125, or $350 for second and subsequent violations. People cited for other types of inattentive driving, such as reading or applying makeup behind the wheel, face a fine of $115.