New Wisconsin law penalizes cell phone use near crash scenes

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — It’s human nature. When we come upon a crash, many slow down to get a better look. Others pull out their camera; now that’s against Wisconsin law.

Gov. Tony Evers signed the bill into law in early December. State Rep. Jesse James, an Eau Claire Republican who co-authored the bill, believes that making it a crime will keep drivers’ hands off their phones and safely on their steering wheels.

Drivers who use their cell phones on the road within 500 feet of a crash site could be subject to a misdemeanor crime. This could be punishable by up to $10,000 in fines, nine months in jail, a driver’s safety class and between 100 and 200 hours of community service.

This law also penalizes drivers who hurt others while committing a traffic violation in construction zones, utility work or emergency response areas. It does not apply to traffic stops.

Crash gawkers can cause more trouble at scenes, causing accidents that can sometimes be fatal.

“These accidents, these crashes can be avoided as long as people just pay attention to the roadway in front of them,” James said. “It’s a matter of life and death. That’s what it comes down to.”

James believes phones play a big role in these crashes. Sgt. Mark Patterson of the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office agrees; he’s seen it firsthand.

“You notice that it’s a lot. Compared to what it was just a few years ago. Everybody’s got to post their pictures and their video. They’ve got to be the first ones,” Patterson said.

Though the bill was signed into law on Dec. 6, Patterson has yet to see a change in behavior. He and James both hope awareness of the new law will change that.

“Once people are made aware that the law is in effect, they pay attention,” Patterson said.

James hopes this law saves lives.

“Property can always be replaced; life cannot. And you have to remember that,” James said.