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DIGGING DEEPER: Deputies call cell phones a deadly distraction, difficult to enforce on Wisconsin roads

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DELAVAN (WKOW) — For Kaitlyn Vegter, it was a matter of seconds. She was driving to Janesville to meet her sister.

“It was a country road. It was a highway but not a freeway highway,” she said. “And there was a payloader tractor that was slowing down to turn in front of me and I was obviously not paying attention and when I looked up, I slammed into him.”

At that point, Vegter said everything went blank.

“At first they told my family to say their goodbyes to me,” she said. “They actually had to remove the whole right side of my skull to allow my brain to swell.”

That was January 7, 2016, the day Vegter said she made the biggest mistake of her life.

“It’s like your second nature to be on your cellphone,” she said. “It’s like a physical appendage, it’s like it’s attached to you.”

She took her eyes off the road.

“You think it will be one second, you do,” Vegter said. “But that one second, has permanent effects.”

According to the National Safety Council, cell phone use while driving causes about 1.6 million crashes across the country each year and locally, Dane County Deputy Bruce Miller said he sees crashes like this all too often.

“I can honestly say that I believe the inattentive driving is worse than impaired drivers and that says a lot,” he said. “You see people weaving all over the road and its almost like they’re impaired.”

It’s Miller’s job to get their eyes back on the road, but he said he can’t stop just anybody he sees holding a phone.

“Our D.A.’s office says it’s not reasonable  suspicion, meaning we cannot stop somebody just for manipulating their cell phone,” he said.

That’s because Wisconsin law only covers texting or emailing while driving and Miller said it’s difficult to prove someone’s committing those crimes.

“I’ll have to get behind them and look for bad driving behaviors,” he said.

Even if he does pull them over, it’s not very likely they’ll get a ticket for being on their phone.

According to records from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, last year deputies wrote 256 inattentive driving tickets. Only 11 of those were for texting and driving.

To Miller, it’s not surprising but he said its not very representative of the problem.

“I probably on my way to the precinct passed about 11 people who were texting while driving,” he said.

Dane County is far from the only county with low numbers. Statewide, WisDOT records show 358 texting and driving convictions in 2018. Compare that to the 24,624 tickets the state gave out for OWIs and the 50,875 tickets given out for people who didn’t fasten their seat belts.

Miller said the reason for the disparity is simple.

“If they don’t admit to it, we can’t write it because we don’t have the evidence to write that they’re texting while driving.”

Due to the narrow scope of Wisconsin’s law, fiddling with your GPS, scrolling through Facebook or taking a Snapchat are all technically legal provided you’re not driving erratically, just like the task that took Vegter’s eyes off the road.

“I was not texting, I was not Facebooking or Snapchatting,” she said. “I was trying to find that song.”

Vegter considers herself lucky no one else was seriously injured in her crash and three years later she considers herself mostly recovered. She’s driving again and back to work.

“I feel like I almost lost three years of my life,” Vegter said. “I feel like I almost went down for a nap.”

She said the things she doesn’t remember haunt her.

“I can’t imagine my family for the longest time just not knowing if I was going to survive and I don’t remember any of it,” she said. “I could have killed somebody. How could I have lived with that?”

Now Vegter’s helping others avoid her mistake, speaking at schools and working with the DOT.

“It took almost dying for me to learn my lesson so let me share it so you don’t have to,” she said.

Meanwhile Miller said he’d like to see deputies ramp up enforcement.

“We should be citing these people for this dangerous driving behavior that’s actually causing the crashes,” he said.

Still, without changing the law he said that wouldn’t necessarily prevent a crash like Vegter’s so their best hope is a change in behavior. Vegter suggests keeping your phone out of reach as you drive.

“It’s an effort. It is,” she said. “It is something that you have to make yourself do.”

According to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, enforcement has improved since the work zone law passed in 2016. In the past two years the department has issued 91 citations for being on the phone in a work zone compared to 23 texting and driving citations in the same time frame.

Miller said that’s because the new law allows them to pull over drivers just for being on their phone rather than waiting for another offense and it requires less proof to enforce.

Since then no laws have made it through the legislature to stiffen penalties or rules for cell phones on Wisconsin roads.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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