Wisconsin bills intended to rein in driver distractions

| 9/15/2009

Two bills active at the Wisconsin statehouse seek to eliminate distractions as efforts to curtail distracted driving increase in popularity throughout the country.

One bill on the move in the Wisconsin Senate would forbid the use of text messaging devices for all drivers. Sponsored by Sen. Alan Lasee, R-DePere, the bill – SB103 – has advanced from the Senate Transportation Committee and is awaiting consideration before the full Senate.

Violators would face fines up to $400. Repeat offenders would face up to $800 fines. If use of a texting device causes injury to another person, the fine would be up to $2,000 and/or one year in county jail. If anyone is killed, violators would face up to a $25,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison.

New York recently became the 18th state to outlaw the practice of operating a motor vehicle while texting. More than a dozen states have acted this year alone with bans in Illinois, Oregon and New Hampshire slated to take effect Jan. 1.

Attempts nationwide to curb the practice of using the devices for texting while driving have intensified in recent months. A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has already fueled increased interest in efforts to put a stop to use of the technology. Researchers found that drivers are more than 23 times as likely to be involved in a crash or near-crash while texting at the wheel.

The researchers studied truck drivers for 18 months to come up with their findings. But the results generally applied to all drivers.

The findings have energized lawmakers in states that include Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma to pursue legislation during their 2010 sessions to adopt texting bans. More efforts are anticipated as Congress could get involved.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, filed legislation this summer that would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while driving or do without 25 percent of their federal highway funds.

The majority of people who answered an informal poll on the Land Line site said they support a federal legislative push to ban texting while driving.

The poll question showed 82 percent in favor of a ban. More than 11 percent of respondents answered ‘no’ while 6 percent said they would support a ban only if texting were exempt in certain situations.

Another bill in Wisconsin would ban cell phone use among new drivers. It 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 hold a probationary license. As is the case with the first bill, emergency phone calls would be exempted.

Sponsored by Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, the young drivers’ bill would allow violators to face fines up to $40. Repeat offenses within one year would result in fines of as much as $100.

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 transporting more than one passenger in the vehicle under age 18 unless they are relatives.

The plan would cover both texting and talking on phones. It would apply even if the phone is hands-free.

Pasch said she would like to see lawmakers consider prohibiting all drivers from using cell phones, but covering young drivers is a good place to start.

Pasch’s bill – AB341- is in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Wisconsin in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

Editor’s Note: Please share your thoughts with us about the legislation included in this story. Comments may be sent to statelegislativedesk@ooida.com.