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Distracted driving poses growing challenge

A photo of Shreya Dixit, a University of Wisconsin student who was killed in November 2007 when the car she was in crashed because of its driver being distracted, flashes across the screen Thursday during the “Toward Zero Deaths” traffic safety conference at the DECC. Her father, Vijay Dixit, spoke about increasing awareness of the problem of distracted driving during the conference. (Bob King / 1 / 3
Vijay Dixit tells the group of about 800 participants in the Toward Zero Deaths conference the story of how his 19-year-old daughter was killed in a crash involving a distracted driver in November 2007. (Bob King / / 3
Bruce Parker (left), an injury prevention researcher, talks with Kelly Cusick, with DriveSafeRideSafe out of the Twin Cities, on Thursday during the Toward Zero Deaths conference. (Bob King / / 3

Transportation and law enforcement officials have set lofty goals for reducing traffic deaths in Minnesota, but experts stressed Thursday in Duluth that it won’t get any easier to change the culture of distracted driving.

Speaking at a statewide conference at the DECC, University of Kansas psychology professor Paul Atchley warned about in-vehicle technology that allow drivers to do everything from checking social media to ordering movie tickets to placing dinner reservations.

“We’re starting to see the wave, but it’s not cresting any time soon,” he said. “This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

About 800 traffic safety advocates, including law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, engineers and public health officials, gathered Thursday for the first day of the annual statewide Toward Zero Deaths conference.

The campaign was launched in 2003 as a collaborative effort between the state’s public safety, transportation and health departments to put an end to traffic deaths. On tap for the annual conference was the opportunity for officials and advocates to explore issues of distracted and drunken driving, trends in road safety and enforcement strategies.

The program has already made a difference, said Sue Groth, director of the Department of Transportation’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology. In 2003, the state saw 655 traffic deaths. Ten years later, that number was down 41 percent to just 387 deaths.

As of Thursday, Minnesota had seen 304 traffic fatalities in 2014, Groth said. That number is down from 324 on the same date last year.

The initiative’s long-term goal is to get below the 300-mark by 2020.

“With each one of these (goals), it’s going to be a little bit harder to get that number down,” Groth said. “We have a lot of work to do in the next six years.”

Vijay Dixit told conference attendees that it will take a strong awareness campaign to make a change. Dixit founded the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation after his 19-year-old daughter was killed in a distracted driving crash in November 2007.

Shreya Dixit, a University of Wisconsin student, was a passenger in a car returning home to the Twin Cities when the driver, reaching for an object in the back seat, lost control and crashed.

“The volcanic shaking of that event has not subsided,” Vijay Dixit said. “The emotional wound will never go away.”

But Dixit said he was determined to find some good in his daughter’s tragic death by raising awareness through the foundation.

“Despite the devastating tragedy, we resolve to find some good in it,” he said. “Distracted driving, which was a tongue-twister a few years ago, is now a household word.”

Officials stressed that distracted driving isn’t just about cellphone use. It can include eating, adjusting the radio or yelling at children in the back seat.

Atchley, the psychology professor, said studies show that distracted driving is more dangerous that drunken driving. Unlike driving under the influence, in which drivers typically realize they are impaired and use more precautions, distracted drivers think they have the ability to multitask while behind the wheel.

“The brain disguises things it doesn’t do well,” he said. “One of those things is perception.”

Atchley likened cellphones to “drug delivery systems,” and said there is an “arms race to social connection in vehicles.”

“All we’re doing is making it easier for the problem to get worse,” he said.

With studies showing that penalties for distracted driving are lagging behind those for drunken driving, Atchley advocated for stronger laws, but said public awareness needs to be the top priority in lowering traffic fatalities and injuries.

“We need to change the behavior first,” he said. “Once we change behavior, attitudes will change.”