Texting ban nears closing stages

A new state law will soon make local drivers think twice before pulling out their cell phones to send a quick text message.

Tuesday, Jan. 19, the Wisconsin State Assembly adopted a measure that would make any kind of texting illegal while driving. More specifically, the bill makes any typing on a computer or phone while someone is behind the wheel illegal.

The use of GPS systems, built-in navigation systems and two-way radios while driving would not be fined under the new bill.

Final passage of this legislation will make Wisconsin the 22nd state to place a ban on sending text messages while driving.

“This is an effort to send the message that texting while driving is dangerous and unacceptable on the roads of Wisconsin,” said state Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha in a statement.

This latest measure comes after the Wisconsin State Senate approved a ban on texting while driving last October. The Assembly’s version, passed last week, is very similar to the Senate’s version. However, one primary difference between the two bans is that the Assembly’s ban would allow drivers to text while their vehicles are stationary, such as when they are stopped at a traffic signal or a stop sign.

Because the Assembly and Senate have created two separate bills, the two houses will have to make a joint effort to address the differences between the versions. After lawmakers have agreed on a single version, the bill will go to the desk of Gov. Jim Doyle, who is expected to sign the bill.

Lawmakers in the Assembly decided to make changes to a previous version of the bill before they passed it. Most notably, they eliminated a mandatory minimum penalty of $100 for the first time a driver is caught texting behind the wheel. The maximum penalty for the first offense carries a fine of $400. Violations of the law after the first offense would result in fines ranging from $200 to $800.

“Although it’s annoying, it is necessary, because after seeing some of the commercials against (texting while driving), I’ve seen the dangers it can cause,” said Becky Moylan, a senior in the College of Communication. “Something needs to be done about it.”

The bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 89 to 6, but did meet some opposition. Lawmakers against the bill voiced their opinions that the proposed penalties were too stiff. Opponents also claimed the penalties were too high, as the most frequent offenders would likely be teenagers who cannot afford to pay such large fines.

The cross-country movement to institute many of these statewide texting bans came about a year ago when lawmakers from several states first drafted texting bans.

This movement was inspired by a study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The study revealed that drivers are more than 23 times as likely to be involved in a crash or near-crash while texting at the wheel.

More recently, a study released earlier this month by the National Safety Council discovered that 1.6 million motor vehicle crashes are caused by cell phone use and texting. Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the Council, hopes this study will help influence the implementation of bans across the country.

“This new estimate provides critical data for legislators, business leaders and individuals to evaluate the threat and need for legislation, business policies and personal actions to prevent cell phone use and texting while driving,” Froetscher said following the study’s release.

“There was great progress made in 2009, particularly regarding a broad recognition that texting is dangerous,” Froetscher said. “We now need the same broad consensus that recognizes cell phone use while driving causes even more crashes.”