Bill Aims to Curb Distracted Driving

For far too long drunk driving has been the scourge of Wisconsin roadways. We lead the nation in that awful and deadly behavior.

But now there’s a new addiction that threatens to rival drunk driving. It’s called distracted driving and, in reality, it’s about one mighty distraction: cell phones. According to the Wisconsin DOT distracted driving killed 121 people on our roadways last year and it accounted for an astounding 11,000 injuries.

Under current Wisconsin law it is, in fact, illegal to drive while texting. But, of course, texting is just one thing you can do with a cell phone.

So a new bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) and state Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), would prohibit drivers from using smartphones to “enter, transmit, or access data” while driving.

Under current Wisconsin law, if a driver is doing this but not texting, it’s not necessarily illegal. A new bill would provide a penalty of up to $400 if a driver is caught using a cell phone in this manner for any purpose.

In other words, the bill would block activities like using Twitter or surfing the web while driving as well as other phone activities that have yet to catch on.

And it increases penalties for texting and the other activities that would now be covered under the bill from as little as $20 under current law to as much as $400 under this legislation.

The Bike Fed strongly supports this measure. When a driver is distracted and drifts onto a shoulder, who might be there? A cyclist. When a driver is surfing the web and he fails to stop at an urban intersection, who might be in front of him? A cyclist. The kind of behavior that might result in fender benders with other motor vehicles can result in serious injury or death for bicyclists.

In a story on the bill in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sen. Wanggaard is quoted as saying, “When you put that key in the ignition, you…exercise the power of life and death over everybody you come in contact with. Think about that.”

Sen. Wanggaard is as right as could be. We will work to get this bill passed, but even if it falls short this session, his bill is getting people to think about that.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

5 thoughts on “Bill Aims to Curb Distracted Driving

  1. This is great and I hope it passes. We really need to do something new to get people off phones behind the wheel. I wish our proposed law would be phrased hands free like California’s law. Law Enforcement may have a difficult time determining whether a person is accessing data or dialing a phone number. Or is entering a phone number considered entering data? If people knew they could get fined for touching a phone while moving behind the wheel it would be a much better deterrent. Hands free would also make it less likely people try to lie their way out of injuring or killing somebody after the fact. Either way, this would be better than the current law, and could save people’s lives-both people who ride bicycles and people who drive cars. Thanks to Bike Fed for trying to make us all safer!

  2. The studies I have seen did not demonstrate an increase in safety with hands-free use of a phone. The distraction of a phone conversation was not dependent on the use of the driver’s hands. An example:
    Gemma F. Briggs, Graham J. Hole, Michael F. Land. “Imagery-inducing distraction leads to cognitive tunnelling and deteriorated driving performance.” Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 2016; 38: 106 DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2016.01.007

    • That seems right to me, but as a matter of politics, I don’t think it’s possible right now. The self-driving car could be the answer in the long run.

  3. I’ve contacted my state legislators asking them to back and support this bill and the vulnerable users bill (I think it’s still alive, right?) In my email I listed some of the WI bicyclist deaths over the past few years where the car driver/murderers received light or no sentences. Does the Bike Fed keep a database of this? (Date, County, Type (bike, ped), Result (death, injury), Sentence, Link – or something like that) Could that be something volunteers could do and park at the Bike Fed web site? I think it would be helpful for those lobbying for better bike infrastructure and harsher penalties for those who kill or injure bicyclists and pedestrians with their motor vehicles. Hearing about these crimes one at a time affects us, but seeing them piled up over time may have a greater impact. Or does anyone know of such a database for Wisconsin at another site?

  4. Most are familiar with accidents/crashes that occur with teens and their driving. However, there is also an issue with company/fleet vehicles. These vehicles spend more time on the road than personal vehicles. Because the driver is on the clock and working, they will try to “multi-task” and do work other than driving when they are behind the wheel. Emails, phone calls, using apps and texting are often part of a drivers’ workload.

    While many states and legislators are seeking to lower distracted driving by increasing penalties, fees and regulations, there is another option. AT&T “It Can Wait” campaign is an advocacy effort to diminish distracted driving. They have an anti-texting app to be downloaded onto your smartphones. The app is called AT&T DriveMode. They make it available to all drivers for FREE!

    One area that is rarely discussed is that Wisconsin has hundreds of State vehicles that inspectors, regulators and the agricultural department use as fleet vehicles, but they do not have the technology to diminish distracted driving. I would love to see Wisconsin lead by example and use a program, like FleetMode, to block texts, redirect incoming phone calls, and impede all other apps in the State vehicles. If we want our state roads to be safer, let’s start by making our state vehicles safer.

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