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Eyes on the road, please, authorities ask

Superior High School senior, Chris Paplior, demonstrates how easy it is to become distracted while behind the wheel. He was not driving during the demonstration. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

By Mike Longaecker

Forum News Service

HUDSON, Wis. — Brett Heino remembers pushing his patrol car hard up Interstate 94 last year in pursuit of a road rage suspect. But what sticks out to the Wisconsin State Patrol sergeant isn’t the road rager he was after. It was the line of vehicles he passed.

Seven of the 10 vehicles he cruised by in traffic were driven by people looking at mobile devices. In fact, Heino, who patrols six counties in northwestern Wisconsin,­­ said the drivers’ behavior tipped him off before he even saw the illuminated devices in their hands.

"Their driving behavior is a lot like an impaired driving," he said, calling distracted driving "a huge problem."

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Heino and other law enforcement officials said the timing coincides with warmer weather drawing more motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians out to share the roadway.

"There’s going to be a lot more activity on the roadways," said Pierce County Lt. Mike Waltz, who heads the department’s patrol division. He said that will require drivers to pay more attention to the road and that "adding in any distraction is going to compound the problem."

Each day in the United States, more than nine people are killed and more than 1,153 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

St. Croix County Chief Deputy Scott Knudson said the prevalence of smartphones means the number of inattentive driving-related crashes will probably continue to rise.

Knudson said state law prohibits writing text messages while driving, but it doesn’t outlaw the viewing of messages or images displayed on a mobile device.

"It’s a great law that was enacted, but it didn’t cover that," he said.

Knudson and Heino noted, however, that inattentive driving is illegal and that cops can enforce that law whether or not it involves drivers looking at phones. State law specifically prohibits any activity "that interferes or reasonably appears to interfere with the person’s ability to drive the vehicle safely."

Heino said drivers sometimes think that taking a quick second to peek at their cell phones while driving on the highway might be harmless. Not when you’re traveling at 100 feet per second, he said.

"In that second, a lot can happen," Heino said of highway speeds and resulting crashes. "If your eyes aren’t on the road, you’re not going to be able to react."

Distracted driving took center stage last week when a woman appeared in Pierce County Circuit Court on allegations that she used her Facebook app in the moments that led up to a crash that claimed the life of her daughter and two nieces.

"Anytime there’s a high profile case or an event like that, that increases public awareness, officers tend to focus their enforcement on those areas," Waltz said.

He said drivers can sometime be lulled into a false sense of security on rural roads, where they may give into temptation to use their phones.

"Unfortunately," Waltz said of that scenario, "there’s that kid who comes out of a driveway on a bike;­­ you don’t always see them coming."

For those battling the temptation, Heino offered this advice: "They need to put their cell phone away."

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