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Concern grows about teens texting while driving

Barb Sorenson

Olmsted County's second Community Health Needs Assessment was released Monday with one surprising result — increasing concerns about adolescents behind the wheel have vaulted injury prevention to the top priority.

Injury prevention was not previously targeted among Olmsted County's top five health priorities when Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center and Olmsted County Public Health initiated the first study of local health trends in 2013.

The new report says 20 percent of teenagers who live in Olmsted County do not wear seat belts while driving or riding in a car. Additionally, half of teenagers read texts while driving and 43 percent admit to sending texts or emails while behind the wheel.

Those startling figures prompted the health priorities to be ranked, with injury prevention assuming the top spot. Immunizations are second, followed by mental health, obesity and financial stress.

"New to the list of health priorities this year was injury prevention," said Barb Sorenson, communications director at OMC. "This is defined as distracted driving by teens — texting and emailing while driving — and teens not wearing a seat belt while driving or riding in the front seat of the car.


"The results that we see in this study are not unexpected. As a group, we did not prioritize injury prevention in the top five three years ago, but we knew there was a growing concern."

Stacy Sundve, health assessment and planning division director at Olmsted County Public Health, says that merging diabetes with obesity from the 2013 priorities created the open slot for injury prevention. It's already been identified as a national concern across the country and Minnesota has beefed up its laws on distracted driving.

Cellphones are banned for teen drivers during their permit and provisional license stages, and it's illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cell phone, except to call 911. That law includes hands-free driving.

It's illegal for drivers of any age to text, email or surf the web on a wireless device when the vehicle is considered part of traffic, which includes being stopped at a traffic signal. The first fine for distracted driving is $50, but the second offense was increase to $225 in 2015 as an increased deterrent.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety estimates that at least 25 percent of crashes are caused by distracted driving, leading to at least 70 deaths. However, DPS warns that those estimates may be low "due to law enforcement's challenge in determining distraction as a crash factor."

The Mayo Clinic Community Engagement team contends that distracted driving is a preventable health hazard, which could make it easier to address than, say, mental health. Sundve said each issue comes with its own challenges and "we as a nation are learning together."

"Our community knows health improvement take time and do not occur overnight," Sundve said. "An increase in health knowledge leads to a change in health behavior which eventually will change health status. The community of Olmsted County is committed to long-term changes and outcomes. One of the first steps is to have valid and reliable local data."

Mayo and OMC both plan to dive into the data to develop internal actions plans within the next few months. Olmsted County Public Health says it will now shift its focus to the Community Health Improvement Plan, or CHIP, while holding community conversations in early 2017.


"The assessment continues to affirm that the health status of Olmsted County is very positive and compares favorably to our state and nation on many health indicators," wrote John Noseworthy, Kathryn Lombardo and Pete Giesen, who lead the three local health organizations, as part of the 112-page assessment. "It also shows more could be done in certain areas."

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