Highway Patrol Targets Distracted Drivers

DPS Officer Ben Kjellstrom talks to a driver about dangerous distractions behind the wheel.

DPS Officer Ben Kjellstrom talks to a driver about dangerous distractions behind the wheel. Photo by Alexis Bechman. |

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It only took Department of Public Safety officer Ben Kjellstrom a few minutes to spot a violation amidst a sea of traffic and whip his unmarked patrol car around, sloshing this reporter across the plastic backseats.

“They weren’t wearing a seat belt and they didn’t stop behind the stop sign,” he says coolly behind Oakley shades.

He approaches the van cautiously and asks his standard question: “Do you know what you did wrong?” But Kjellstrom isn’t just concerned about the infraction, he wants to know whether the driver was really paying attention at the time.

DPS this week held a special statewide campaign to curb distracted driving, asking motorists if something or someone had taken their attention off the road.

The campaign focused on changing driving behavior through education and enforcement of existing traffic laws. Many violations such as speeding, unsafe lane use, failure to yield or stop, stem from driver distractions rather than intentions, according to DPS. 

The officers want to make drivers more aware — not trick them into confessing they were distracted. To avoid entrapping drivers with a question, said Sgt. Erik Axlund, they now wait to ask until after they write the ticket, while assuring drivers they won’t be cited for volunteering the information.

“The whole point is to open people’s eyes to the danger of distracted driving,” Axlund said.

While some drivers were reluctant to admit to distracted driving, others admitted their minds were elsewhere.

Taking your mind off the road is a form of distracted driving that occurs when a driver multitasks; their eyes are on the road, but their mind elsewhere. The result: drivers miss roadway hazards.

Distracted drivers behave a lot like drunk drivers, with inconsistent speed, unsafe lane changes and tailgating.

Axlund and Kjellstrom Monday handed each driver a pamphlet on the dangers of distracted driving and texting.

“We don’t want to wait until more crashes take place to do something about distracted driving,” said Lt. Colonel James McGuffin, DPS’ assistant director. “We want our officers to catch distracted driving behavior early.” 

And while Arizona has not outlawed cell phone use while driving, the law does require reasonable and prudent speeds and care for the protection of others.

“A driver whose eyes are not on the road, hands are off the wheel or mind is not focused on driving is not exercising reasonable care for the protection of others.”

Thus, drivers could get a ticket.

In all, Axlund and Kjellstrom made more than a dozen stops in four hours on the Beeline Highway, hoping their message would spread.

They convinced me: I think I will put the corn dog down so I don’t ever find myself in the back of an uncomfortable patrol car again.

Top five distractions

• Something outside

• Reaching for objects in car

• Using a cell phone

• Adjusting equipment

• Occupants in the vehicle

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