News 18 Investigates: Uncovering the dangers of distracted driving

WLFI File Photo

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — A law aimed at discouraging distracted driving has been in place since 2011, but it has not had the impact legislators and law enforcement hoped.

The law only applies to texting and emailing, not the multiple other ways we use smartphones every day. Law enforcement says it’s not doing enough to stop the tragic consequences of putting your smartphone before your safety behind the wheel.

“This really can happen,” said Clinton County resident Jill Biddle. “This is real. This is a real person. This is a real mom telling a story.”

Clinton County resident Jill Biddle’s story began on June 20, 2016, when her daughter, Maria Droesch, was killed after swerving into an oncoming truck.

Droesch was texting at the time of the crash.

“Making people aware of what can happen in 2 to 5 seconds of just looking at your phone,” Biddle explained. “Because it’s become so second nature to the generation that we’re in.”

That’s exactly what Biddle has been doing the last eight months.

Since Droesch’s death, she’s been traveling to schools and public events telling her story to teens and adults.

With her, she brings her daughter’s car. The twisted metal serves as a reminder of the consequences of distracted driving.

“They need to be taught and get in that habit, that the phone is nothing to be on when you’re in that vehicle,” she added.

While Biddle tries to educate others through tragedy, West Lafayette Police Chief Jason Dombkowski said something needs to be done at the state level.

Dombkowski said that starts with Indiana’s current law against distracted driving.

“It is very difficult to enforce, and the federal courts have essentially said it’s a useless law,” he said.

Dombkowski said the law was passed with good intentions, but he said the transformation of technology over the last 5½ has made it tough on officers.

“It’s almost impossible for law enforcement to enforce because there’s no ability to see what function was going on with the phone,” he said.

With so many other distractions, such as social media sites, Dombkowski said it’s time for the state to step-up.

“This is a public safety issue that needs to be addressed by the Legislature to get their guidance, and what they want us to do in the area of enforcing distracting driving in our state,” Dombkowski added.

Legislation at the Indiana Statehouse could be the answer with a bill that proposes outlawing the use of any telecommunications device while driving. Drivers would be required to use hands-free or voice operated technology to make or answer a call.

The only exceptions to going hands free is if an emergency call is made to 911.

Those caught breaking the law could face up to a $500 fine.

“This is more about asking for a law that actually gives officers the ability to enforce the safety issues of distracted driving with a smartphone,” Dombkowski said.

Even if the bill becomes law, Dombkowski said preventing distracted driving starts at home.

“Talking about those issues, I think, is really big as well,” he said. “Not only, maybe, at the Statehouse, but at our own dinner tables as well.”

Biddle said that’s something she’s encouraging parents to do before it’s too late. In the meantime, she said she’ll continue to honor Droesch’s memory by telling her story.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I have to believe that,” explained Biddle. “She taught me, unfortunately, in a way that I had to learn just like a lot of other people – what can happen very quickly. I have to believe that this is what I need to do.”

The latest distracted driving bill is due in the Road and Transportation Committee but has not yet been heard.

Its author, Republican State Rep. Milo Smith, fears it won’t get a shot at becoming law this year. Smith encourages those in support to contact their local legislators.

For more information on the bill and how you can help Biddle’s efforts to educate about the dangers of distracted driving, click here.