Bill aims to stop distracted driving; expands penalties

A group of Wisconsin lawmakers are looking to crack down on distracted driving. Under a new bill, Wisconsin drivers would be penalized for using apps or surfing the web while driving. Current law only prohibits drivers from texting and emailing.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls),Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), and Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), would only allow drivers to use navigation and make a phone call while driving.

Using a smartphone to access any type of data, including apps and searching the web, would be prohibited.

“When you stare down at your phone for four or five seconds, you are covering hundreds of feet and you’re completely unaware of what’s popping up in front of you,” said Zimmerman.

On average, 100 people die every year in Wisconsin from distracted driving, according to the Wisconsin State Patrol and Department of Transportation. Zimmerman admits enforcement of the law could be tough and would come after the fact. Law enforcement would have to prove the phone caused an accident before a driver would be ticketed. Under current law, drivers ticketed for texting and email receive a minimum fine of $20; if the bill passes, it would increase that number to $100.

“This just gives law enforcement a little bit more in terms of teeth when it comes from a punishment aspect in making people think twice before they do this,” he said.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already banned using devices while driving. Washington state is now citing drivers for DUI-E: driving under the influence of electronics.

“I don’t think that this particular category is all that different and in fact it may be worse than driving under the influence of alcohol,” Zimmerman said.

While Wisconsin’s bill does not hold the same restrictions, Zimmerman said it’s a step in that direction.

“Driving under the influence of electronics in a legitimate problem that we have to solve. I do think we can go further,” he said.

A hearing on the bill was rescheduled this week for Nov. 16.