Proposed bill cracks down on data-distracted driving

It’s a holiday weekend, and many people are hitting the roads during what’s considered to be one of the deadliest times of the year to drive.

A proposed bill in Wisconsin is targeting a major cause of accidents that’s only getting worse in the state.

The number of deaths related to distracted driving in Wisconsin has increased by more than 68 percent over the last two years, and there were more than 25,000 distracted-driving accidents resulting in more than 11,000 injuries in the state last year.

That’s according to legislators pushing for tougher fines for drivers caught using their phones.

“You’ll see people with their heads down doing something, but you don’t know what they’re doing exactly,” Trooper Robert Koenen said.

As a longtime trooper in the Wisconsin State Patrol, Koenen has noticed a disturbing trend.

“When I first started off, you didn’t see people doing this at all,” he said. “There was no social media, and now people are somewhat addicted to it and can’t put their phones down.”

Many have strong feelings about texting and driving.

“Disgusted. (It) makes me angry; it always has,” said Pam Chalk, who is visiting from England.

That feeling is shared by Franksville resident Sharon Thompson, for whom it hits home.

“Not a good idea,” she said. “A kid was using their phone as they were turning and got into an accident (with me) … so we definitely don’t use our cellphones when we drive.”

Now drivers are not only texting, but also using apps including Facebook and Snapchat.

“(They’re) probably even worse, because then you’re focused on taking pictures or thinking about other things,” said Kyle Armstrong, who was on his way to Ohio.

Three Republican legislators in Wisconsin have proposed a bill that would update distracted-driving laws to specifically prohibit using data while driving.

“Therefore that applies to Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube or any other social platforms that are out there,” Koenen said.

The bill would also increase the minimum fine from $20 to $100.

“Sometimes the fear is enough to have people put their phones down,” Koenen said, and he said there’s more to be afraid of.

“With this new legislation coming, if a death occurs due to data-distracted driving, that constitutes homicide by negligent use of a vehicle,” he said. “So, you are risking a lot if you’re driving down the road using your phone when you shouldn’t.”

Even without this bill, Koenen said drivers can get in trouble for using apps on their phones if it can be proven that they were driving distracted.

This bill updates language in the statutes to make it specifically clear that using data while driving is illegal.

There are exceptions to the legislation. Under the bill, drivers could still use their phones for calls and navigation.

Legislators hope the bill will become law by the end of this year.