Wisconsin cell phone laws, legislation

Cell phone, texting update: A trio of state Republicans propose expanding the texting & driving law to include all forms of manipulating data while driving. Their bill also seeks to increase the base minimum fine for electronic distracted driving to $100. The bill targets social media use by drivers, which is technically legal under the current texting statute. Sponsors are state Rep. Ron Tusler, Rep. Shannon Zimmerman and Sen. Van Wanggaard. “Responsible cell use is possible while driving but snapping, tweeting and posting are for another place and time than the drivers seat,” Tusler said. The texting law dates back to 2009. The bill was unveiled June 22.

Madison area officials want to use Metro buses to catch texting & driving offenders.


Dane County deputies would ride buses during off-peak hours and would notify officers at street level when a violation is spotted from on high. Deputies would be the only passengers on the buses at that time. Federal funds would be used for fuel and driver overtime, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The plan has been approved by several committees, despite concerns about damage to the Metro Transit “brand.”

Wisconsin’s ban on use of handheld mobile phones in construction zones is now in effect. Fines from $20 to $40 (first offense), increasing for repeat offenders to $50/$100. The law applies to a “highway maintenance or construction area or in a utility work area,” which reportedly includes snowplow activity and garbage pickup. The law’s promo slogan: “Orange cones, put down the phones.”

State Rep. Peter Barca revived his legislation seeking to outlaw driving while using handheld wireless communications devices, but was again unsuccessful. “Despite the (2010) texting ban, the issue of distracted driving remains a major public safety concern,” says Barca, who couldn’t get a hearing for his general cell phone ban. “They’re just not willing to entertain this,” the Democrat said of the Republican-controlled Transportation Committee.

The Wisconsin State Patrol blames distracted driving, in part, for a spike in traffic fatalities. The State Patrol and Department of Transportation say 556 people died in 2015, an increase of 13 percent. The DOT safety chief said midyear that the “biggest problem” was driver inattention such as texting and talking on cell phones. More than 24,000 crashes were blamed on distracted drivers in 2015.

Assembly Bill 198: Would prohibit driving while using a mobile phone in a construction zone unless a hands-free attachment is employed. Fines: $20 to $40 (first offense), then $50 to $100. Approved by Transportation in a unanimous vote of May 28, 2015. Approved by the Assembly on Feb. 18, 2016. Approved by the Senate on March 15, 2016. Signed into law by the governor March 30 as Act 308. (Spiros)

The Assembly Transportation Committee again approved state Rep. John Spiros’ plan to ban use of handheld cell phones in construction zones. The panel also OK’d the bill in 2014, but it failed to become law. “The workers really are the most important people in that construction zone,” Spiros said. State Sen. Jerry Petrowski has the Senate version, also a rerun from 2014 that cleared committee in late May 2015.

Assembly Bill 124: Seeks to rewrite and clarify behaviors cited under state’s general distracted driving law. To existing prohibition on operating a vehicle with TV display visible to driver, would add cable & satellite TV images and prerecorded video images. Exempts some commercial vehicles and emergency vehicles from video signal ban. Approved by Transportation Committee in a unanimous vote of Feb. 7, 2014. Signed into law by the governor April 23, 2014. (Bies)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared September the “Don’t Text & Drive: It Can Wait” awareness month. “While Wisconsin bans texting and driving, we must continue to raise awareness about the deadly consequences of this practice and urge all drivers to never text and drive,” said State Patrol Superintendent Stephen Fitzgerald. The Wisconsin State Patrol, AT&T and AAA plan a series of distracted driving presentations for state high schools throughout the year.

The Department of Transportation is getting out the word on the new cell phone law that went into effect Nov. 1, 2012. “Traffic crashes kill more teenagers in Wisconsin and the rest of the nation than any other cause of death,” said Sandra Huxtable, director of the Wisconsin Bureau of Transportation Safety. “And distracted driving is a factor in many of these crashes. … Any lapse in attention to traffic or road conditions is a grave danger to you, your passengers and everyone else on the road,” Huxtable said in a DOT press sheet on the cell phone law.

Wisconsin’s new cell phone ban also applies to drivers of all ages with probationary licenses. That includes drivers licensed in other countries; people with suspended or revoked instruction permits or probationary licenses; new residents with fewer than three years of driving experience and/or are under age of 21; and new residents who surrender a license that is expired for more than six months.

Wisconsin’s ban on text messaging while driving specifically prohibits the writing and transmitting of messages while the vehicle is in motion. It does not outlaw the reading of text messages or use of the Internet. Police say they’ll fall back on the inattentive driving law if other activities on handheld electronic devices lead to unsafe behaviors. Wisconsin was the 25th state to outlaw texting while behind the wheel. It went into effect in December 2010.

Law officers in Green Bay had written two tickets almost a year after the state’s texting and driving law went into effect. Police and deputies blame the texting law itself, which allows typing on handheld devices in order to make a cell phone call. Wisconsin Assembly Bill 496 sponsor Rep. Peter Barca told WBAY: “The goal of the text-messaging ban was not to be able to issue all kinds of citations to make revenue for our community. It really was to try to help communicate how dangerous of a practice it is to text while driving.”

Assembly Bill 291: Would prohibit use of all cell phones and other wireless handheld communications devices by drivers with probationary licenses and instruction permits. Fines: $20-$40 (first offense), then $50-$100. (Original bill’s fines were $50, then $50-$100.) Amended and then approved by the Assembly in a unanimous vote of Feb. 21, 2012. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 4-1 vote taken March 12. Approved by the Senate (without changes) on March 13. Enacted: Enacted by the governor March 29, 2012. Takes effect Nov. 1, 2012. (Bernier, Petrowski)

AB 131: Would prohibit a school bus driver or any driver involved in “pupil transportation services” from using a cellular telephone or other wireless telecommunications device while the vehicle is on the roadway or loading or unloading passengers. Fine: $200 then up to $500. With second conviction, loss of school bus license for six months. Killed in the Senate on March 23. (Kerkman)

Wisconsin Assembly Bill 496: Would outlaw text messaging while driving. Fines from $20 to $400 (formerly $100-$800). The Assembly Transportation Committee voted 12-0 to approve the bill on Nov. 10, 2009. Approved by the full Assembly on Jan. 19, 2010, and sent to Senate, which amended and signed off on the bill April 13. Final approval came in the Assembly on May 4 and AB 496 was sent to the governor, who signed the legislation May 5. (Barca)

The Wisconsin teen-driving bill, AB 341, would bring fines of up to $40 for a first offense and up to $100 for subsequent violations in the same year. Sponsor Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, is not in favor of expanding the bill to include all drivers. “Many people are still reluctant to give up their cell phones, despite the evidence.” The bill received an Assembly committee hearing on Sept. 10, 2009.

The text messaging bill SB 103 would bring fines of between $100 and $400 for first offenses; between $200 and $400 for subsequent offenses; and between $300 and $2,000 for causing bodily harm while texting. 30-day jail terms could apply for injury accidents. State Sen. Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, is the sponsor. The bill was approved by the transportation committee on July 17, 2009. Lasee agreed to change the bill to include just drivers under 18, but Republicans pushed for the plan to cover all drivers before passage on Oct. 20. The text messaging ban was sent to the Assembly and approved by its Transportation Committee.