Wisconsin lawmakers target unsafe driving

| 7/13/2007

A handful of legislation drawing consideration in the Wisconsin statehouse intends to make the state’s roadways safer.

Rep. Gary Bies, R-Sister Bay, has offered a bill that would permit officers to pull over drivers not buckled up. Currently, law enforcement in the state can issue seat-belt citations to drivers only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding.

The bill – AB113 – would allow for primary enforcement of the state’s seat-belt law. It also would increase the fine for failure to adhere to the stricter rule from $10 to $25. No points would be assessed against violators’ driver’s licenses.

Opponents cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. Supporters say saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule.

If approved, Wisconsin would be line for a one-time $16 million payment from the federal government, the Pierce County Herald reported.

The 2005 Federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding the state received in 2003.

Wisconsin has a seat-belt usage rate of 73 percent.

There are 24 states without a primary seat-belt law. Maine’s recent adoption of the stricter rule brings to 25 the number of states that allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law of any kind.

Another of Bies’ bills in Wisconsin would clearly forbid drivers from watching television while behind the wheel.

State law already prohibits drivers from watching any device that receives a television broadcast signal if it’s located in front of the back of the driver’s seat or is visible to the driver – regardless of whether the device interferes with safe driving.

The bill – AB215 – would amend the law to prohibit drivers from watching any device capable of displaying live or recorded television, cable or satellite broadcasts, DVDs or video games that is located within the driver’s view.

The restriction wouldn’t apply to dashboard readouts or other displays of information about a vehicle’s operation or conduct. Drivers found in violation of the rule face fines up to $400.

One other bill – AB214 – would prohibit drivers under age 18 from talking on cell phones or sending text messages while behind the wheel when they have an instruction permit or are within the first nine months of holding a probationary license. It would exempt emergency phone calls.

Sponsored by Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis, the bill would have violators face fines as much as $400.

The distracted driving provisions would be added to other restrictions under Wisconsin’s graduated driver’s license program. Existing rules prohibit probationary license holders under age 18 from driving unsupervised between midnight and 5 a.m. and from transporting more than one passenger in the vehicle under age 18, unless they are relatives.

The bills are in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Wisconsin in 2007, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor