Wisconsin has taken significant strides in decreasing drunk driving deaths, but now it must battle another driving danger: mobile phones.
“We’ve done a great job in reducing drunk driving in the state of Wisconsin over the last 10 years,” said David Pabst, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s safety director, “But now we’ve got distracted driving taking over. It’s not quite as high but it’s getting there, and it’s really alarming.”
Pabst appeared on Sunday's installment of “Capital City Sunday” to talk about the problem and the state’s efforts to get citizens to put down their phones in traffic.
Alcohol-related crashes have been on a downward trend for the last 30 years, with 190 deaths in 2015. Wisconsin has managed to cut drunk driving deaths in half over the last decade. But there were 113 deaths from distracted driving in 2016, a 10 percent increase over 2015’s 103 deaths.
There were also 11,302 injuries from distracted driving, a 6 percent increase over 2015.
Over 90 percent of crashes happen because the driver makes a poor choice, Pabst said, and "one of the worst choices we have is picking up your phone and using it while you’re driving.”
Even simply talking, rather than texting, is distracting, he said, and makes it four times more likely that you’ll be involved in a crash.
And he noted that it’s not just teens and young adults who are driving dangerously.
“We used to think it was just the young people,” Pabst said. “Now everyone's using smartphones, and they’re using them all the time.”
A survey by AAA in 2016 found that more than 70 percent of people admitted to talking on the phone while driving.
And while not everyone who drives drunk is addicted to alcohol, many people are hooked on their phones, Pabst said. Getting messages produces endorphins, which can be addictive. He cited a study that took phones away from kids, who then went through withdrawal-like symptoms.
Host Greg Neumann asked how the state is trying to fix the problem.
Texting while driving is illegal in Wisconsin, but “it’s more about changing people’s behavior,” he said, first by getting them to recognize the seriousness of the problem.
“There’s a stigma about drunk driving, we need that same stigma for using the phone while driving and texting and Snapchat and Facetime,” he said.
Neumann agreed that people don’t think of using your phone while driving as a crime.
“You know if you’ve had three beers, maybe I shouldn’t drive. Nobody says, ‘I’ve got my phone, maybe I shouldn’t drive.'"
But ultimately, the solution comes down to personal choice, Pabst said.
“It’s a matter of taking a personal stand and saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’” Pabst said.
Sometimes, people can be motivated through other personal stories. The DOT has a YouTube and social media campaign spreading the personal stories of individuals injured by distracted driving. Pabst gave an example of a video on the site of a girl who looked down to change a song on her phone and crashed into a truck, leading to massive injuries requiring the removal of part of her skull.
There’s also a lighter side to the media campaign, he said, where super villain character “The Distractor” educates drivers about the dangers of phones, food and operating a GPS while in transit.
“What we have to do in Wisconsin is realize yes, this is a serious business that we’re talking about, people’s lives are at stake,” Pabst said. “We need to control our impulse to use a phone.”