Bill expands prohibition on using cell phones while driving - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Bill expands prohibition on using cell phones while driving

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Madison (WKOW) -- All of us see it, all of the time and many of us do it: look down at our phones to check social media, a news website or a sports score while driving.

Law enforcement sees it too.

"I have made more than a few traffic stops and given some firm admonishments about this very thing, and they look at me like I have a third eyeball growing out of my head, because everybody's doing it," said Madison Police Chief Mike Koval.

"Everyone does it and I think it's a habit that we need to curtail," said Heath Straka, a personal injury attorney who is also the president-elect of the Wisconsin Association of Justice (WAJ).

The WAJ, which lobbies on behalf of the state's trial attorneys, is pushing for changes to existing state law to make sure more people think twice about that habit.

Proposed legislation would expand the the current ban on texting and emailing while driving, to include a prohibition on accessing any type of data on a smart phone - with the exception of GPS for directions.

A driver could also still use the phone to actually make a call.

Checking your phone for any other reason would be prohibited and would cost you more as well.

The current first-offense fine for texting or emailing while driving is just $20.

Under the proposed changes, that amount would climb to $100.     

"As trial attorneys - people who represent the victims of car crashes every day - we see the influx of what has happened," said Straka.

Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) is also trial attorney, who is leading the effort to pass the bill in the State Assembly.
"Roughly 10,000 more people are getting hurt each year as a result of this increase in inattentive driving, and that's way too many," said Rep. Tusler. "And anything we can do to get people to put their phone down and focus on driving is something that's important to - not just Republicans, but Democrats - and really anybody in this state."

Expanding the law to prohibit the web browsing or using apps like Twitter and Facebook seems like common sense, but whether the changes would be enforced at a higher rate is questionable.

"The more that the legislature brings consciousness and awareness to the event, I think that's fine, said Chief Koval. "But I think that's more saber-rattling, because we just don't have the resources to be able to make that a high stakes priority right now."

Straka says enforcement will always be at the discretion of the officers on the streets, but district attorneys want more assistance to prosecute the cases they do get.

"What we've heard from prosecutors is they need something to be more specific as it relates to the use of phones, because they're so prevalent," said Straka.

The changes would bring Wisconsin's law on phone use while driving more in line with neighboring states like Michigan and Minnesota, but would not go as far as Illinois - which only allows hands-free operation of a phone while driving.

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