Hands-free in Hudson? Goeltz family says it's time
Tom and Wendy Goeltz saw firsthand what could be accomplished in Minnesota.
Years of perseverance by distracted-driving advocates led to a law passed this year that will limit Gopher State motorists to hands-free functions when operating a mobile device while driving. The Goeltzes, a Hudson couple, joined in the fight shortly after losing their daughter in a 2016 fatal distracted-driving crash.
The law hasn't even gone into effect yet in Minnesota — that happens Aug. 1 — yet the Goeltzes already have their next target for change in sight: Wisconsin.
"It's kind of a no-brainer to bring it across the river," Wendy said a day after she and Tom proposed a hands-free ordinance Thursday, June 13, at the Hudson Public Safety Committee.
The Goeltzes, who live in the town of Hudson, said their ultimate goal is to pass a statewide law, but they said it felt right to begin the effort in their border community, where many young people are familiar with their daughter's death.
Megan Goeltz, who was pregnant at the time, was killed Feb. 29, 2016, in Minnesota's Washington County when her car was struck by a distracted driver from North Hudson.
Tom said he spoke this year at a mock-crash event in Hudson where students were already seeking to know what to expect when they drive in Minnesota. He argues it's logical to have the same rules in neighboring Hudson.
"They need to get familiar with the law" if they'll be going to the Twin Cities, Tom said.
The Goeltzes hope passing hands-free ordinances in cities like Hudson, River Falls and New Richmond can create a groundswell that might someday catch the attention of lawmakers in Madison.
"Wisconsin better get in gear," Tom said.
Last week's committee meeting saw unanimous support of the proposal, which Hudson Police Chief Geoff Willems said he also backs. The panel recommended the city attorney draft an ordinance that could be considered for a first reading at Hudson Common Council's first meeting in July.
"I think that it's a good place to start," said Council member Joyce Hall, who sits on the Public Safety Committee. "And getting the cities' interest in this is a good way of getting started."
Hudson wouldn't be the first Wisconsin city to go hands-free. The committee's packet included similar ordinances from Wausau and Marshfield.
"It's not like we have to reinvent the wheel," Willems told committee members.
Tom's appeal to committee members touched on similar themes as presentations he gives to groups around the country as part of his job as a safety consultant. The messages he conveys come directly from the heart and weave the impact of Megan's death throughout it.
It's a tear-jerking message that causes some to wonder how Tom delivers it without going to pieces. He said he understands.
"I think it's my daughter speaking through me," he explained.
The Goeltzes, who would prefer to see an all-out cellphone ban in vehicles, said that while they're not thrilled with Minnesota's hands-free law, it is a start. Tom said states that have instituted hands-free laws have seen a 15% reduction in fatalities involving distracted driving.
He can't attribute that directly to the law, but the Goeltzes figure awareness campaigns that accompany the new laws likely contribute to the reduction.
"A little bit is better than nothing," he told committee members.
And when it comes to changing driving behaviors, Tom said he is familiar as anyone how hard bad habits can be to break. While Wendy said she used to talk on her phone while driving, Tom said he used to do "more than that."
Then Megan died.
Tom said he quit the practice cold turkey. It wasn't easy to shake the urge to pick up the phone but he said it went away after a couple months.
"You have to develop a new habit," he said.