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As many take to Wisconsin roads this summer, excessive speed thwarts zero death goal

State trooper speaks with a driver.
Chuck Quirmbach
State Patrol Trooper D.J. Heinisch speaks with a driver who he has just pulled over on I-94 for not wearing a seat belt. The driver received a citation.

If you're hitting the road this holiday weekend and summer, law enforcement patrols may be watching.

It's part of safety programs that have a long-term goal of zero preventable highway deaths in Wisconsin. But each year, the state is hundreds of deaths away from that goal.

Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper D.J. Heinisch usually monitors I-94 in Waukesha County, and has been doing so for three years.

Heinisch says during his eight-hour shift, he typically makes eight to ten traffic stops — mostly for speeding, lack of seat belt use and registration violations. He says he's also come across vehicle crashes.

"Yeah crashes, it's one of those situations in law enforcement, where you find people at their low," Heinisch tells WUWM this week.

The state transportation department says in 2019 in Wisconsin, before the COVID pandemic hit, there were more than 12,300 crashes just from inattentive or distracted driving. On average, there are nearly 600 traffic deaths in the state each year.

The DOT asked Heinisch to take us on patrol with him for a little while to get a better look at what's taking place on the freeway.

Over about 90 minutes, Heinisch helps a motorist change a flat tire on the right shoulder and talks with another man whose car had run out of gas on the left shoulder. The trooper aims to reduce potentially dangerous traffic situations, with cars whizzing by just feet away, and no crashes occurred.

A radar unit and other equipment help State Patrol Trooper D.J. Heinisch monitor traffic on I-94.
Chuck Quirmbach
A radar unit and other equipment help State Patrol Trooper D.J. Heinisch monitor traffic on I-94.

Back on the road, some motorists slowly pass the state patrol vehicle, but no one went the 20 miles per hour over the limit that Heinisch says he often sees.

A little later, Heinisch briefly turns on his vehicle's siren to pull over the driver of a pickup truck who the trooper notices is not wearing a seat belt. There's no rear license plate on the pickup either.

After a couple of conversations with the driver, Heinisch tells WUWM he didn't issue a citation for the lack of a plate because the truck was just purchased at an auction and is being taken to a dealership.

But, he adds, "She received a citation for not wearing a seat belt."

That's a $10 fine. Through June 5, the state has stepped up itsClick It or Ticket seat belt enforcement effort aimed at drivers and passengers.

It comes as the DOT says a survey indicated seat belt use dropped a couple percentage points last year to 88%.

David Pabst, of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation
Photo from Wisconsin DOT website
David Pabst of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

That decline is bad news, says David Pabst. He's the state patrol's director of transportation safety.

Pabst says getting people to buckle up is the simplest thing he can do to help them survive a crash. He says some young people — males especially — think they're immune to the danger.

"You know, 'I'm indestructible. I'm a teenager or I'm a young male, and I'm in my truck and I'm just going from point A to point B and I don't need to wear my seat belt.' Yet, that is when you get hurt," he warns.

Pabst says an airbag will go off during a crash, but it does not provide as much protection if a seat belt isn't being used.

He says the state also discourages cell phone use while driving, and law enforcement also has programs aimed at impaired drivers and at detecting speeders — including from the air. Pabst says highway engineers are designing safer roads, and automotive engineers are putting in systems to help drivers stay in their lane and away from other vehicles.

So, why is Wisconsin still hundreds of roadway deaths per year above the zero goal?

Pabst partly points to excessive speeders: "Every day, we are getting someone who is going way over 100 miles per hour. Cars aren't designed to help you survive when you crash at that speed. You're starting to push the limits of current engineering."

Pabst warns that even going five or 10 mph over the speed limit brings greater risk. He says the department and local law enforcement are looking at greater use of social media, or working with social influencers like coaches to get people to slow down.

Pabst says the only acceptable roadway death number remains zero.

But on Thursday, the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department reported a 55-year-old man was killed when his motorcycle collided with a dump truck in the Town of Lisbon.

The department and the state patrol are investigating the crash.

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