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Behind The Wheel With Police: Catching Distracted Drivers

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Distracted driving has been called a national epidemic. The problem is considered so bad, there's now a push in Washington to adopt a national ban on texting while driving.

One in 10 highway deaths in the United States is caused by distracted driving.

The law is simple in Minnesota -- you can only talk on your phone while driving if you're over 18.

Yet officers say even that can leave you distracted enough to cause a crash, and land you with a ticket.

Watching the road has turned to an after-thought. Some drivers have made watching their electronic devices priority on high-speed highways and slower-paced streets.

The dangers distracted drivers pose threaten all of us and Officer Dan Athmann can prove it.

"Basically, it's a three-part system down here," he said. "The computer, and then you've got what's called the com-hub, which essentially runs everything. Then it's up on top, it's the imager -- the camera."

He and other Burnsville officers wear the Axon camera. Everything he sees, you'll see.

"It's the perspective of the officer, which often-times, you don't get," he said.

He teamed with Officer Chris Wicklund for a distracted-driving enforcement. They allowed WCCO-TV cameras to tag along.

Officers watched as a driver opens his charger-port and plugs in his charger. He was using multiple electronic devices on the road.

"See how he's all over the road?" Athmann said.

Distracted driving doing interstate speeds on 35W.

"See how his light's still on? He's had his left blinker on for the longest time," he said.

It's a textbook example of driving distracted.

Sgt. Athmann pulls the driver over and asks him if he was aware of his driving. He then issues the driver a ticket.

"Thankfully, no one got hurt," he says to the driver. "Have a good day."

National statistics show plenty of people are getting hurt from this. You're 23 times more likely to crash while texting than while not distracted.

In fact, distracted drivers kill 15 people daily. That's why they want you to see what they see.

"The more people that really see this message, and hopefully change their behavior and not use these devices when driving, it's only going to save lives down the road," Athmann said.

Inattentive driving is dangerous at slower speeds, too. It was particularly evident while stopped.

A light turns green and as the other cars start moving, one vehicle sits stopped for seven seconds, before realizing it's time to go.

Sgt. Athmann tickets that driver, too.

This is the first time Burnsville officers have done one of these distracted driving enforcements. Our cameras were with them for an hour, and so far, they've actually pulled over four people.

Thomas took his eyes off the road while focused on his phone. Police spotted him through his rear-view mirror.

"His eyes are looking down," Athmann said. "His eyes are darted down."

He admitted he was making an appointment.

"By law, you are allowed to make phone calls, which tells you, you can look for a phone number but where's that area of taking you over a fourth of a mile to constantly look down?" he said.

Burnsville officers consider these cases classic distracted-driving examples -- taking your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, your mind off driving.

The last stop they made was more unusual.

The driver admitted using marijuana, going nearly a 100 mph down the interstate. The marijuana is worth thousands of dollars.

Officers arrested the man for felony-marijuana possession and impaired driving, ending an enforcement that resulted in several tickets, an arrest and maybe something more important on Twin Cities streets: education.

Police hope Minnesotans will make the road priority the next time they drive.

A ticket for distracted driving will cost you about $100.

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