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Driver Smokes, Starts Fire, Answers Phone, Gets Warning

Police say it's a good example of why more people need to call 911.

Last week, my husband and I were heading west on Minnesota Highway 62, about to head north on Highway 100 when a tan Chevy Suburban crossed two lanes of traffic without using a turn signal to get in front of us and make the exit.

We followed the truck and watched as it swerved onto the shoulder and back and forth between lanes.  

I grabbed my phone and called 911. I told the dispatcher this wasn't an emergency but that it might become one. She had me stay on the phone until a State Patrol trooper could meet up with us and stop the Suburban.

The trooper moved in front of us and turned on his lights. We found our exit, shook our heads and were soon talking about something else.

About a half-hour later, the trooper called to thank me. He explained that the driver of the Suburban had been smoking a cigarette and that the ash had blown in between her legs on the front seat and started a fire. She tried to fan out the fire while continuing to hold the lit cigarette—a task made all the more challenging when, at the same time, she tried answering her ringing cell phone.

The trooper told me he appreciated my call to 911. The first reaction by most people, he said, is to get as far from an erratic driver as possible, and that they often don't think about calling police.

"It's hard for us to stop distracted drivers because we can't keep an eye on every car out there," Lt. Eric Roeske, public information officer with the state patrol, said.  "That's why it's so important for anyone who sees a distracted driver or just a dangerous situation to call us."

The driver of the Suburban was given a warning for failure to drive with due care. 

"Even if we aren't writing a ticket or arresting someone, we could be stopping a potentially deadly scenario," Roeske said.  "If you're not sure whether or not it's worth telling us, err on the side of making the call."

echoed the same message at one of its yearly neighborhood watch meetings with a few dozen residents this week. Cmdr. Mike Meehan said warning police about potential danger is better than waiting for the situation to actually become an emergency. 

"You do not need to be in a life-and-death situation to call 911," Meehan told the group.  "It's a common misconception, but you're not bothering us."

What do you do when you see a potentially dangerous situation?  Click on video to see what the drivers we talked to had to say and whether the message from police to make the call changed their answers.

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