Wisconsin Cell Phone & Driving Laws

Most of us have seen campaigns against distracted driving, whether on billboards, radio broadcastings, or TV commercials. This year AT&T ran several commercials detailing the stories of distracted drivers or of their family members and how they are coping with the consequences of the driver’s actions. The commercials were very sad and somber.

However, despite these types of campaigns and state laws that outright ban cell phone use while driving or particular types of cell phone usage such as texting, it is all too easy to spot other drivers more preoccupied by whatever activity they are doing on their cell phone than driving. Social media and the hundreds of cell phone applications available only add to the temptation of multi-tasking while driving. For example, such temptations as tweeting, posting a picture on Facebook, or joining the “latest” craze and video blog (vlog) exclusively present themselves to today’s drivers. Vine and Instagram allow users to upload short videos to capture the user’s thoughts/moments in life, and many users seem to enjoy showing their followers whatever is happening on the road or in the car while the driver continues to drive.

Wisconsin Stat § 346.89 prohibits inattentive driving. Section one states, “No person while driving a motor vehicle shall be so engaged or occupied as to interfere with the safe driving of such vehicle.” Section three of the statute bans drivers from composing or sending texts and emails; however, the law does not appear to prohibit looking at messages or other activities as long as the activity does not cause the driver to violate section one. Last year the legislature added a fourth section that prohibits all cell phone usage for drivers with probationary licenses unless the device is used to report an emergency. This addition primarily targets teenagers but it affects anyone with a probationary license. While Wisconsin permits cell phone usage for drivers with a regular operating license, § 346.89 (1) covers vlogging and other activities to the extent that the driver is so occupied that it interferes with driving. As such, a vlogger could potentially get around being inattentive by using voice commands to do the recording and positioning the phone in a way where the vlogger does not have to hold the phone while its recording.

However, a driver caught violating the statute is subject to the following:

346.89(1) Inattentive driving: Fine of $20 to $400 and four point demerit

346.89(3)(a) Texting & driving: Fine of $20 to $400 and four point demerit

346.89(4) Probationary license: Fine $20-$40 for the first offense, and $50 -$100 for subsequent convictions within a year

See Wis. Stat. § 346.95; Wis. Admin. Code Trans § 101.02(2)(h).

In my opinion, the prohibition against cell phone use should be more specific so in certain situations crafty drivers cannot continue cell phone activities. Further, the base penalty should be raised to at least $100 as a minimum amount to be more effective as a deterrent. I think the statute should be expanded to include a prohibition of all cell phone usage (handheld and hands-free) by all drivers in school zones and highway construction zones as is done in other states. These areas are important for obvious reasons and should be specifically covered by the statute. Although these small changes might not stop the 21st century driver from the addictions of cell phone usage while driving, it is good public policy to have stricter cell phone usage laws. While I am not advocating a ban on the ability to make calls while driving, I am definitely against vlogging while driving.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Joseph Hylton

    The truth be known, I was convicted of inattentive driving in Wisconsin in the fall of 1995, during my first year on the Marquette faculty, in a time that long predates cellphones.

    More precisely, I was allowed to plead guilty to inattentive driving even though I was actually charged with speeding. At that time I was living in Evanston, Illinois and commuting to Milwaukee by car. In that era, the average speed on I-94 through Lake County, Illinois was about 85 mph, and it did not drop significantly once you crossed the Wisconsin state line.

    However, once you crossed the bridge that separated Racine and Milwaukee County, the speed limit dropped to 55 and enforcement increased exponentially. I knew to look for the Oak Creek Police Office parked on the far side of the bridge, but one morning, I forgot.

    Upon the advice of one of my Marquette colleagues (who shall remain nameless), I decided to contest the ticket. When I spoke to the prosecutor, I was told that I could go to trial, or I could plead guilty to “inattentive driving.” If I did the latter, the fine would be the same as for speeding (between $100 and $200 dollars) but there would be only a point or two against my driver’s license. (That aspect of the statute has clearly changed since 1995). I was told that if I had been driving just a little slower, I would have been allowed to plead guilty to “driving with a defective speedometer,” which was an even less serious offense.

    My impression at the time was that inattentive driving was not a real offense, but rather just a legal fiction used to speed along the collection of speeding fines. It appears that the introduction of cellphones and texting has at least converted it into a real offense.

  2. Robert Hampton

    Higher fees are disproportionately affect the poor.
    There is no doubt that distracted driving in all its forms is dangerous. At this point, especially after that hard-hitting Werner Herzog documentary, I believe that it is common knowledge that things like texting and driving can be deadly.
    But are increasing fees really the answer?
    The idea sounds great in a vacuum, want people to not do something, make the punishment for doing that thing worse.
    Increased fees probably won’t take too much of a bite out of the weekly budget for a wealthy person. And I’d like to believe that those that still reside in our shrinking middle class would still be able to handle the bills after a couple extra dollars in fees – maybe they don’t go out to Red Lobster or something for one night to even things out.
    But its those at the bottom that increases fees will hit the hardest.
    At the bottom any time money is involved choices have to get made. Tough choices.
    At the bottom that $60 (or whatever increase it is) is no longer take a girl out on the weekend or a fun night at the bar money its something a whole lot different.
    Same crime. Drastically different effects on those who committed it.
    But I know it sounds good in vacuum.

  3. Chris King

    I have always thought the problem to be one of enforcement of the inattentive driving law already on the books and not further cluttering of the code with specific examples of what constitutes inattentive driving.

    Call me a cynic, but I remember thinking at the time the no texting while driving addition was passed that the sponsoring legislators were unecessarily grandstanding about improving driver safety. The original catch-all definition of inattentive driving has always covered texting while driving, answering a phone while driving, looking away to adjust a radio, air conditioner, or ipod. There’s just less of a chance of press release or media sound bite for an elected official who works with the police to enforce the law already on the book than passing a “new” law that merely provides a specific example for a law already on the books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.