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Minnesota will become the 19th state to enforce a ban on handheld phone usage while operating a vehicle beginning Thursday.

The exception is making an emergency call. Offenders will face a first citation fee of $50, increased to $275 for each subsequent offense. Wisconsin has a texting while driving ban, but has yet to implement a hands-free law.

Wisconsin drivers who cross the bridge will need to put their cells aside once they enter Minnesota.

While Coulee Region motorists are legally able to chat and drive in Wisconsin, they’d best be prepared to drop the call when they cross state lines, and from a safety standpoint, motorists would do well to follow Minnesota’s example.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, statewide there are five accidents caused by distracted driving every hour, for a total of 46,809 in 2018.

This is seven times the number of crashes caused by drunk driving. Last year, distracted driving accidents resulted in 10,379 injuries and 89 deaths. “Taking your eyes off the road for just four seconds while traveling at 55 mph is like driving the length of a football field blindfolded,” according to the DOT

Registered nurse Kathleen Roush, trauma coordinator for Mayo Clinic Health System’s southwest Wisconsin region, stresses the need to abstain from any action that takes your eyes off the road.

Putting on makeup in the rearview mirror, searching for a dropped object or fiddling with the radio while the car is in motion all count as distracted driving, though “Cellphone use and texting are the biggest issue,” Roush said.

“When you text while driving, you are combining all three types of distraction: visual, manual and cognitive,” Roush says. “There is simply no way to drive safely while texting. The safety of drivers, passengers, pedestrians and other people on the road is much more important than responding to a text.”

Manual distraction, Roush explains, occurs when hands are taken off the wheel, while cognitive distraction happens when the driver’s mind is taken off of the act of driving. Mayo Clinic researchers say texting “does more than just create a lapse in attention — it actually changes a person’s brain waves.”

When researchers monitored the brain waves of 129 subjects during a period of 16 months, using electroencephalograms and video footage, they discovered a “texting rhythm” in approximately one in five individuals.

Mayo Clinic researcher William Tatum said of the study in part, “We believe this new rhythm is an objective metric of the brain’s ability to process non-verbal information during use of electronic devices and that it is heavily connected to a widely distributed network augmented by attention or emotion...There is now a biological reason why people shouldn’t text and drive: texting can change brain waves.”

Roush recommends the following to encourage attentive driving:

  • Ask friends and family to designate their cars a no-phone zone when driving.
  • Put your phone somewhere you can’t reach it before driving.
  • Set your phone to airplane mode, which temporarily disables Wi-Fi and data so you won’t be distracted by notifications from incoming calls, texts or app alerts.
  • See if your phone has a setting that allows for an auto-reply to be sent to an incoming text message when a vehicle is in motion. Use the setting to automatically reply that you’re driving and that you’ll respond when you are parked.

Under the new law, drivers in Minnesota with bluetooth “one touch” hands-free capabilities in their car may use the audio system to answer calls, or use a single earphone to talk while driving. One ear must remain free at all times while the vehicle is in operation.

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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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