Off the Record: What would discourage distracted drivers?

Distracted driving continues to be a problem in this age of instant cell phone gratification. We safe, sane drivers who keep our hands at the “10-and-2” position and check our rear view mirrors every 30 to 45 seconds have all seen the problem. You look ahead or behind and see a car veering from side to side, halfway on the shoulder, then halfway over the center line. If you get a chance to see the driver, the head is down, one hand is on the wheel (maybe), the other hand in the lap, tapping out a text that says something like “drivn dwn hwy 14 – whr r u?”

State law enforcement held a two-week distracted driving enforcement campaign in April, and the number of citations for testing climbed for the 4th straight year. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, officers, deputies and troopers cited 1,576 motorists for texting and driving during the campaign, compared with 1,017 cited during last year’s campaign.

Some examples of bad driving behavior:

• The Kasson PD cited a 65-year-old man who was shopping on Amazon during a snowstorm.

• A 42-year-old man was cited on 694/Rice Street for playing poker on his phone while driving.

• A 31-year-old woman was cited for booking airline tickets while driving on Hwy. 13/Silver Bell Road.

• A 52-year-old male was playing Pokémon Go while driving. The driver showed the officer his key fob, which is also a remote that allows him to capture the Pokémon he encounters while driving.

My favorite example is one that was reported in the Star Tribune — a state trooper stopped a 24-year-old man in northern Minnesota for texting while driving. He was using his phone to pay a court fine — for the texting-while-driving ticket he had received two weeks earlier!

So, what can we do to stop serial Texting While Driving (TWD) offenders like the last young man? They are like the chronic DWI offenders who lose their licenses, have their license plates impounded, are fined to the brink of bankruptcy and may have even served time for their crime. But they borrow someone else’s car, get liquored up and go careening down the road again.

The state tries things like installing a breathalyzer ignition interlock on their cars that won’t let the car start unless you blow an alcohol-free test. But what can you do with serial distracted drivers?

We could take a tip from the breathalyzer hookups, and install cell phone jammers in the cars of people who just can’t put down the phone while driving. They wouldn’t be able to get a signal in or out, and they would have nothing else to do but drive.

There are some severely radical and bloodthirsty people who would suggest cutting off their thumbs. You can’t text without thumbs, you know. That would be effective, but I’m pretty sure the lawyers would consider that cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.

I have an idea that might be just as effective, but much more humane. We could inject the thumbs of chronic TWDs with Botox, which would temporarily deaden the nerves, rendering the thumbs inoperative for a couple of months. This would force the TWDs to find some other way to communicate, perhaps by using Siri to send text messages for them. By the time the Botox wore off, the texting by voice command would be so ingrained as a habit that they wouldn’t bother going back to the thumb-tapping method again.

Of course, if that doesn’t work we could always go back to the amputation solution.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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