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North Dakota Department of Transportation Director Tom Sorel, shown here during a June legislative hearing, said the new cellphone policy “demonstrates our commitment” to the state's Vision Zero campaign. John Hageman / Forum News Service

New policy aims to curb distracted driving among North Dakota state employees

BISMARCK — North Dakota state employees are now prohibited from using cellphones while driving state fleet vehicles and other cars during work hours under a new policy that’s more restrictive than current law.

The state Department of Transportation policy was implemented at the beginning of July but was announced Monday, Aug. 6, as part of the state’s “Vision Zero” traffic safety campaign. The policy also covers state employees using their personal vehicles while on the clock.

State law prohibits drivers from sending an “electronic message,” such as text messages and emails, but it includes exceptions for entering phone numbers and using hands-free features. Another law kicks in only once a driver has committed another traffic offense or is involved in a crash while distracted in any form.

But the DOT policy bans all cellphone use while driving, said Karin Mongeon, the department’s safety division director.

“That’s more stringent than state law,” she said. “You have to do all of your activity on a cellphone prior to engaging your vehicle in the act of driving, or else you need to pull over to the side of the road.”

Employees who violate the policy are subject to penalties determined by the agency that employs them, DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson said.

The DOT manages the state fleet, which includes about 3,500 vehicles spread across the state, Mongeon said.

Mongeon described the policy as a proactive move under the state’s Vision Zero campaign, which Gov. Doug Burgum introduced early this year with other state agency heads. DOT Director Tom Sorel said in a statement Monday that the policy “demonstrates our commitment” to the initiative.

The latest annual DOT crash report doesn’t provide data on wrecks that resulted from distracted drivers, calling it “vastly underreported.” But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there were 3,450 distraction-related deaths across the country in 2016, representing about 9 percent of all traffic fatalities.  

Mongeon didn’t immediately have the number of state fleet vehicle crashes that were caused by drivers taking their attention away from the road, but she said “many” incidents involved cellphone use.

“We do believe (the policy) is going to have an impact,” she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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