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April 2014 Archive

Driving Distracted - Unwise, Unsafe, Uncool

 
Posted April 28, 2014
 
Distracted Driving Month is nearly over, but the issue hasn’t gone away…and there are a couple of things left to say on the subject. One is on the results of a statewide distracted-driving crackdown April 11-20, and another is about the rapidly changing social perception of texting behind the wheel.
 
This month, more than 400 Minnesota law enforcement agencies took part in a concentrated effort to thwart distracted drivers. In some cases, officers riding in high-profile vehicles took to the roads to look for people texting (and otherwise behaving unwisely) while driving. When they spotted a driver reading or typing, they radioed other officers in squad cars, who stopped and ticketed the offenders.
 
Photo: A motorist texting while driving.
Over 10 days, 550 drivers received tickets for texting behind the wheel — in fact, for risking their own lives and those of other drivers by splitting their attention between driving and exchanging non-emergency information.
 
If you travel our streets and highways regularly, you know that those 550 drivers represented a fraction of the people who were potentially placing your fenders and your life at risk that week. Or maybe the lives of your children, your siblings, parents, friends or co-workers.
 
And that leads to the other issue.
 
Anyone in a nearby vehicle can see what you’re doing behind the wheel — especially if they’re in a truck, a van, or anything higher-profile than whatever you’re driving. They can also call 911 and report you.
 
At the very least, they will resent you. Socially, texting behind the wheel has become as popular as smoking in a bus shelter. It’s just considered unacceptable.
 
When a driver doesn’t notice the stoplight turning green, the one behind him is probably grumbling, “He’s texting.” The person cut off by an unsafe lane change will look to see where the other driver’s head is tilted. They’ll know if her attention is not on the road.
 
The fact is, more and more motorists are tired of sharing the road with people who don’t pay attention to driving. Those who text while they drive are becoming roadway pariahs for a very good reason; distracted driving contributes to about 25 percent of all our crashes.
That’s why law enforcement is watching — and drivers are catching on.
 

Calling 911 — The Right Way

 
Posted April 24, 2014
 
When you call 911, your call is routed to the nearest emergency dispatch center, where operators gather information from you and relay it to appropriate responders.
 
Photo: 911 dispatcher for the State Patrol
 
Whatever the situation — whether you suspect the driver in front of you is impaired, a building is on fire, you have an intruder or there is violence taking place — you’ll get help as soon as possible if you follow these guidelines, also from experienced dispatchers:
 
  1. Have one person make the 911 call; ask other people to be quiet.
  2. Take a deep breath. Gather your thoughts. Act calm, even if you’re not. The dispatch operator is trained to help you. Hysteria makes that very difficult.
  3. Speak slowly. Speak clearly. Lower your voice; screaming causes distortion. If you’re asked to repeat yourself, don’t yell. Just repeat more clearly.
  4. Think about your location. On the road…which highway or road is it? What direction are you traveling? Which town did you just pass? What town or landmark are you headed for? Expect these questions; they help the operator identify your location. NOTE: The GPS on your phone may not work. Repeatedly telling the operator that you have GPS will not help.
  5. Provide your full name without hesitation. There are no repercussions for making the call, and the officer who responds to the call wants to know who to talk to. Your name will not be released to a suspect, if there is one.
  6. The operator is trained to help; answer all the questions without fear or hesitation. If you don’t, the responder may not be able to do the best possible job for you.
  7. The important thing is to get help; your personal feelings on the situation don’t matter until later. The operator needs facts — only the facts.
  8. The operator may give you instructions based on the facts you have provided. Follow them. It’s the operator’s job to keep you safe until help arrives; the advice you’ll get is solid.
  9. Expect to wait a reasonable time for help to arrive. Your information will go to the closest available responder. In an emergency, it’s hard to remember, but nothing happens instantly. Stay on the line as long as the operator asks you to, and try to keep those around you calm.
 

DPS on Social Media: Real-time Info and Other Useful Stuff

 
Posted on April 21, 2014
 
Parents, teachers and other wisdom sources say that trading what you want most for what you want now is a bad idea.
 
But when your basement is filling with river water, you want to know — right now — that someone knows there’s a flood. When there’s an emergency scene on your usual highway route, you need to know what the State Patrol has to say. It’s good to find out, as soon as possible, whether they’ve found a lost child you know. And once in a while…maybe as you string holiday lights, or fire up the turkey fryer…you’d like some information to keep your family safe.
 
DPS has a place to turn for facts and advice related to safety — more than one place, in fact.
 
DPS social media sites provide real-time information when bad things happen — things like floods, tornadoes, crashes, crimes or major infrastructure failure. By turning to DPS on Facebook or Twitter, you can find out where the problems are, who is responding and how to protect yourself, if that’s necessary.
 
DPS Tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos help people learn to react safely to almost any type of natural or man-made disaster. They’re places to go when your community is threatened by bad weather, a crime spree, a scam artist or a zombie apocalypse. Even better, you can go there before bad things start to happen, and use the links to plan in advance.

When the forecast is clear and news is good, there are still great things to explore. Some DPS offerings are visual, some entertaining; others allow people like you to explain their personal experiences and offer lessons and advice. Many news conferences on current events are tweeted live, or live-streamed to media and later posted on YouTube.

Facebook examples include impaired-driving enforcement waves, severe weather awareness, fire safety campaigns, AMBER Alerts and law-enforcement requests for help from the public. If you follow DPS pages, you can interact with the agency, provide feedback and ask questions.
 
Like or follow DPS or any single division by going to dps.mn.gov, selecting “Media Center” at the top of the page, and clicking “Social Media.” You’ll find a menu of social media choices and a selection of instantly available videos from the YouTube gallery, including DWI confessions, Trooper dash-cam video, infra-red video from a State Patrol helicopter and hundreds of others.
 
And by the way – the “zombie apocalypse” reference was there to make sure you were paying attention. If that specific threat should occur, you’ll probably hear about it without turning to social media.
 

Spring Landscaping? Call 811 Now; Avoid 911 Later

 
Posted on April 17, 2014
 
Everyone knows it’s dangerous to drive without a seatbelt. Boat without a life vest. Play with matches. Run with scissors. But there’s not much talk about dangerous landscaping. How menacing can a shovel be?
 
The Department of Public Safety includes the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety (MNOPS). MNOPS employs engineers who have a very serious answer to that light-hearted question.
 
woman digging in a garden
Photo: Woman digging in a garden
Whether your shovel is a menace depends on whether there are utilities running under your yard, what they are, where they are and how deep they’re buried. Pipeline engineers are always serious about these things.
 
With 70,000 miles of gas and liquids running under the dirt in Minnesota, chances are pretty good there’s something under your yard. If you have a gas furnace or stove, the fuel probably comes to your house through a tube that attaches to a gas line under the street. There’s no reason for you to know where that is until you start tearing things up.
 
Your electricity may come in underground, too. Hitting a cable can disrupt service to an entire neighborhood, and you don’t want to be the person who does that. But back to the gas issue…
 
After a natural gas emergency, inspectors often hear homeowners say that they smelled something strange, but didn’t know what it was, so they didn’t do anything. If it smelled like rotten eggs, it was natural gas — and by the time the inspector is involved, it’s usually too late. There’s been a leak, a fire or an explosion, commonly because someone digging a hole hit a gas line without knowing it.
 
If you’re digging up old bushes or trees…anything with a substantial root system…or planting something that requires a hole more than a few inches deep, you should plan ahead several days, call 811 and let a specialist come and mark the utilities in your yard. You’ll learn about things you never knew were there. And you’ll be very glad you didn’t damage any of them.
 
By the way, you’ll want to call before you have someone unclog a sewer pipe, too. There are various places in Minnesota where gas lines installed underground were inadvertently run right through clay sewer pipes. It’s called a “cross-bore,” and if a sewer-cleaning device encounters a gas line in the pipe, it will damage it, cause it to leak, and create a very, very dangerous situation. When you think “sewer,” think 811. The marking service is free, and the relief you’ll feel knowing you’re safe will be well worth the effort.
 
Happy spring — and happy digging.
 

Severe Weather Awareness Week, April 21-25

 
Posted April 14, 2014
 
After one of the most miserably cold, windy, snowy winters in 35 years —NOW we’re going to talk about “Severe Weather.” Unfortunately, this is not a joke.
 
Minnesota winters, no matter how mild or challenging, eventually give way to Minnesota springs, and when they do, Minnesotans are looking at another set of horrible possibilities. (Don’t bother asking yourself why you live here; there’s no time for that. We have to prepare for tornado season.)
 
flooding over roads in east grand forks minnesota in 1997
Photo: Flooding in East Grand Forks, Minn. (1997)
Severe Weather Awareness Week (SWAW) is a good thing. It’s a special effort by the Department of Public Safety Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, along with a list of capable partners, to help people react logically and safely to the next round of weather threats.
 
From April through September, more or less, those threats include violent rainstorms, lightning, hail, floods, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and extreme heat. Depending on which part of the state you occupy, there may be more of one and less of another, but the wise Minnesotan will know what to do if any of those things occur…because historically, they have, and eventually, they will.
 
A handy SWAW webpage is arranged to highlight one or more of our least-favorite weather events each day, from Monday, April 21 through Friday, April 25, with the annual, statewide tornado drill scheduled on Thursday. Just by clicking near Monday, Tuesday, etc., you can get the scoop on the difference between weather alerts and warnings (hint: it might happen or it is happening); the facts on lightning (yes, it can strike twice) and hail and floods; some surprising data on extreme heat in Minnesota; and instructions on how to respond to everybody’s nightmare…the inevitable tornado.
 
Thursday, April 24 is Tornado Drill Day, when the coordinated efforts of all our state’s emergency managers and community response planners pay off in two long, howling warning sirens, and everyone gets to practice their tornado protective response. These occur at 1:45 p.m., and at 6:55 p.m., giving those at work (first or second shift), at home, in health care facilities and schools, or anywhere they might be, the opportunity to practice calmly reporting to the nearest tornado-safe shelter.
 
The webpage also provides a great-looking presentation on what SWAW is, what to do about which weather events, how to prepare an emergency plan and a survival kit, and much more. It would be appropriate at any community meeting, or something you could proudly present for your service club members. And it should be a big hit in either scenario; Minnesotans love to talk about the weather! (Maybe that’s why we live here, come to think of it.)
 
In any case, as long as we’re here, we need to be ready for anything — and Severe Weather Awareness Week is a good time to get that way.
 

Distracted Driving Month: Seriously, Is It Worth It?

 
Posted April 10, 2014
 
April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
 
“What?” you ask. “We have a designated month in which we’re supposed to become aware of something nearly as common as potholes?”
 
In fact, the answer is yes. And here’s why.
 
The word “awareness” in this context means we’re supposed to recognize the problem and do something about it.
 
photo of teen texting while driving
Photo: Teen texting while driving. ​
Recognizing the problem is as easy as answering this: Have you driven more than a few blocks lately without encountering someone (1) talking on the phone (2) reading or writing a text message (3) eating or drinking (4) applying makeup or otherwise misusing the rearview mirror or (5) fiddling with music or video technology?
 
It’s frightening to realize that you’re the only driver in sight who is paying attention to the task of operating a vehicle. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there are statistics provided by the Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety.
  • More than 86,000 crashes were attributed to distracted driving from 2009 through 2013. That’s 25 percent of all the crashes in those five years.
  • On average, distracted drivers account for 60 fatalities and 8,000 injuries annually.
  • In 2013 alone, inattention was a major contributing factor in 17,598 crashes (23 percent of all crashes), 58 fatalities and 8,028 injuries.
Numbers are hard, cold things. They don’t always translate directly into behavior change. So consider the events of 2013, and
  • Envision 17,598 mangled vehicles piled up in a scrap yard.
  • Picture 8,000 people lying injured in an emergency room.
  • Imagine 58 caskets surrounded by weeping family members.
Dramatic images, but realistic. Those ice cream cones, text messages and child-calming videos are directly linked to that much suffering.
 
The second goal of this “awareness” event is to move people off the dime and get them to act.
 
Step one would be to stop driving distracted. If you indulge the urge to read and respond to text messages while you drive, just remind yourself that if the message were really urgent, the party involved would call you.
 
Step two would be to ask your spouse, partner, children, friends and co-workers (and anyone else you can politely remind) to drive with all of their attention on driving. Ask them to pull into a parking lot to eat lunch, and arrange their music selection in the driveway — not in someone else’s turn lane. Ask them to consider, when the text message comes in, the relative importance of a playdate update to the hassle of dealing with a fender-bender…or something much worse. It’s just not worth it. That’s the key.
 
And so, we have Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
 
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. How about this: each day for the next three weeks, climb behind the wheel and repeat this thought: Make driving your only task behind the wheel.
 

School Safety Center Never Takes a Break

 
Posted on April 7, 2014
 
Teachers, students and administrators around the country recently enjoyed spring break — a handy ritual during which districts can make up for snow days if they need to. Some people use the free time to travel, some do their spring cleaning and others just sleep a lot. In any case, they probably aren’t fretting about safety planning, because the Minnesota School Safety Center (MnSSC) is helping them through that essential process.
Here’s a video overview of the School Safety Center provided by Director Nancy Lageson in an informal interview.
Safety is a basic necessity in a learning environment; nobody can function if they don’t feel secure. And by law, every school must have a multi-hazard plan, meaning they need to be ready for anything.
School shootings are horrific, and they’re front page news, but anyone who enters a school building without permission is considered an intruder. Those incidents need to be planned for…along with tornadoes, fire, floods, hazardous material spills, bomb threats, student unrest, and several other categories of mayhem. Ready-for-anything is the goal. That’s a tall order.
 
Formed in 2013, the MnSSC provides guidance and resources for schools, and helps form partnerships with law enforcement, emergency responders and community organizations that support schools in creating a safe environment.
 
With funding from the Minnesota Legislature, MnSSC staff works on:
  • Coordinating a support team made up of people who know emergency response, criminal investigation, fire code and safety, health laws and Dept. of Education requirements.
  • Helping and guiding as schools develop and update crisis or emergency plans based on individual school needs.
  • Offering training, facility assessments, multi-hazard planning and other assistance as needed.
The Center’s Comprehensive School Safety Guide is now online, with guidelines based on local, state and national best practices. Districts just need to customize their plans so they fit specific school buildings and operate smoothly with local emergency responders.
There’s a point in the Guide at which a reader realizes there are two fundamental types of response to an emergency situation. They are:
  1. GO (in which case response involves evacuation, reunification, and communication plans)
  2. STAY (in which case the choice is among lock down, lock out and shelter-in-place)
It might sound simple, but it requires very careful, detailed planning, and determining procedures that are described in detail, so anyone can understand and follow them.
 
Kids boarding the school bus
Photo: Kids boarding the school bus.​
After planning, the most important components are drills and practice. MnSSC staff can visit Minnesota schools and help them with “tabletop exercises,” which means they talk through an emergency scenario, and follow their plan to decide on a proper response. In the course of the tabletop exercise, they may determine gaps or holes in their plans, and then do whatever is necessary to make the plan more effective.
 
MnSSC trains School Resource Officers (local law enforcement officers who work in the schools) and Juvenile Officers in the summer or during winter break, because they can’t leave the school to train when it’s open. Free classes for school district members include topics like Multi-Hazard Planning, Threat Assessment, The 20-Minute Tabletop, Safe School Self-Assessment, Response to Bomb Threats, Crisis Communication, and others.
 
If you care about school safety, personally or professionally, the MnSSC has something to offer you. It’s a great resource that addresses a specific community need — one that nobody should have to worry about during a well-deserved break. In partnership, Minnesotans can make all our schools safer, and create a learning environment befitting the quality of our students, teachers and education leaders.
 

The Power of Words and the Language of Safety

 
Posted on April 3, 2014
 
At an early age, we become aware that language is important; it gets us what we want more efficiently than crying or pointing. We learn that some words evoke an angry response, and others leave a positive impression. We learn about the precision and beauty of language as the place from which poetry and great literature come.
 
There is power in words, and they should be chosen with care.
In the world of public safety, there’s a specific word we consider carefully before we apply it. The word is “accident.”
Photo: Driver of car was changing the radio station and crashed into farm equipment.
Mother Nature can cause disasters, certainly. Horrible things can be attributed to acts of war or terrorism. But many, if not most of the negative events the Department of Public Safety tries to prevent are…well, in a word, preventable. They can be attributed to human behavior. They are often caused by acts of negligence, aggression, absent-mindedness, or plain law-breaking, and they’re not really “accidents.” In most cases, the injuries, deaths and destruction they cause could have been prevented.
 
Example: Impaired driving. Driving drunk. Call it what you will — it’s begging for trouble. There are people at DPS who work on public education, attempting to convince people to stop that behavior. And there are people who patrol the highways, attempting to keep you safe by arresting people who drive drunk. But still, those who chose to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs killed 104 Minnesotans in 2012.
 
Something else to ponder: Almost any time there’s a flood, we see images of people driving around in flood water. Most vehicles can be swept away by less than two feet of moving water. Flood water contains contaminants, broken glass, tree
branches and things far worse. But something other than the immediate need to
escape often compels people to go out and drive through it. If they’re lucky, they
get rescued after their vehicle is stuck, overwhelmed or swept away…and many think of their near-miss as an “accidental” event.
 
We blame highway pile-ups on storms — but most drivers make it safely to their destinations under the same traffic conditions experienced by the driver at the front of a pile-up. The people who work in the Office of Traffic Safety call those events crashes, for the precise reason that in most cases, someone committed an act that resulted in damaged property, injury, or even death. People who work in the field of public safety differentiate between accidents and behavioral issues, because behavior can be changed. That conflict leaves them wondering about human behavior every day. And they hope you will question it, too.