Every day, it seems, you can drive alongside or past another driver who clearly thinks using their phone is, at that moment, as important or more important than paying attention to the road.
No one doing so intends to cause an accident or to injure anybody else, but it happens all the same.
Wisconsin could join the growing number of states going “hands-free.” State Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, said he’s drafting legislation that would expand the state’s hands-free law — which currently only applies to work zones — to include all roadways. He said the bill could be finalized yet this month.
If passed, the law would be a considerable step up from the state’s current ban on texting while driving, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sept. 22. Legislation would only allow a driver to touch their phone once for hands-free use. Holding the phone to talk, text, send emails or for any other use would be prohibited.
“Really what it comes back to is you should be attentive all the time,” Spiros said.
State law has prohibited texting while driving since 2010. As a primary offense, officers can stop someone if they suspect them of texting, messaging or emailing while behind the wheel. An inattentive driving citation can cost a driver about $188. In 2016, state law expanded to prohibit the use of any handheld mobile device within a road work zone. Citations are doubled for work zone violations.
All told, there were close to 8,500 inattentive driving convictions last year, down from about 9,000 in 2017, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation data. Eighty-seven of last year’s 426 roadway fatalities in Wisconsin listed inattentive driving as a possible circumstance.
Nationwide, 3,166 people died in 2017 as a result of distracted driving, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent data.
As of 2017, 15 states and the District of Columbia had statewide hands-free laws, according to NHTSA data compiled by the Georgia House of Representatives Study Committee on Distracted Driving.
Twelve of those states saw a decrease in fatalities within two years after the passage of hands-free legislation. Six of those states saw a more than 20% decrease in fatalities. New Hampshire and Oregon did not have sufficient data.
Last year, Spiros and former Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who is now Secretary of the Department of Revenue, drafted similar hands-free legislation. Offered up later in the session, the bill failed to gain much traction, Spiros said. Now he’s drafting a bill with Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine.
Spiros said penalties still are being considered, but the rule likely would include escalating fines for subsequent violations. “The importance is making sure that there’s a deterrent there,” Spiros said. “We want to prohibit and change behaviors.”
Working with Spiros on the bill is Tom Goeltz, who advocated for close to three years on Minnesota’s hands-free bill. Goeltz, a 30-year safety consultant and resident of Hudson, Wis., hopes to be a catalyst in the push for a hands-free law in Wisconsin.
Three years ago in February, Goeltz’s 22-year-old daughter Megan, pregnant with her son, was killed when a vehicle struck her car near Stillwater, Minn. The driver was believed to have been distracted by his phone.
“I’m trying to advocate for Megan and her baby, who can’t speak anymore, and for all the other victims’ families and victims out there who have been impacted by distracted driving,” Goeltz, 53, said. “We need to get this done because it’s going to save some lives here in Wisconsin. We’ll never know who they are, but we’ll see it in the statistics at the end of the year.”
In Hudson, the city council last month passed its own hands-free ordinance.
Police Chief Geoff Willems, who worked with the council in drafting the ordinance, acknowledged it’s a difficult rule to enforce. Cellphones are a part of many peoples’ daily lives, he said.
“It’s become such a habitual problem that I think it really is time for the state to step in and say it’s not acceptable anymore,” Willems said. “These types of things — that get us closer to zero deaths in Wisconsin — should be a priority.
“If it’s so dangerous that you don’t want people on their phones in work zones, how is it any different if they’re driving 70 mph on a freeway or through a school zone with kids around or any other time?” Willems asked.
Such legislation would make things safer for Wisconsin’s pedestrians and bicyclists, who are obviously even more vulnerable if drivers distracted by cellphones cross their paths.
Wisconsin should follow Minnesota’s example and pass hands-free legislation.