Wisconsin lawmakers target unsafe driving

| 1/3/2008

The Wisconsin Assembly voted to approve a bill that is intended to keep teens from talking on their cell phones while driving. Other legislative efforts also would add restrictions to help make the state’s roadways safer.

Sponsored by Rep. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, the bill 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.

The bill – AB464 – would allow violators to face fines that are 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.

Petrowski’s bill is awaiting consideration in the Senate when the 2008 session convenes Jan. 15. If the bill makes it through the statehouse and becomes law, Wisconsin would be the 16th state to limit or ban cell phone use by teen drivers.

Another bill – AB113 – that could come up for consideration would permit police 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.

Sponsored by Rep. Gary Bies, R-Sister Bay, the bill 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 in line for a one-time $16 million payment from the federal government, the Pierce County Herald reported.

Federal highway funding legislation approved in 2005 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 they 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.

Another Bies’ bill 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 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 a 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 could be fined up to $400.

Both bills are in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

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

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor